The U.S. military has around 5,000 service members in Iraq, officials said on Monday, far more than previously reported, as the Obama administration quietly expands ground operations against the Islamic State.
The number of American forces in Iraq has come under increased scrutiny following the death over the weekend of a Marine staff sergeant, the second combat casualty in renewed U.S. operations in Iraq. He was killed when militants launched rockets at a small U.S. base around the city of Makhmour. The existence of the Marine detachment had not been known prior to Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin’s death.
Officials at the Pentagon have declined to specify how Marines are serving at the outpost in northern Iraq, which they described as a satellite base positioned to protect American trainers at a nearby, larger base. Their presence in Iraq highlights the use of forces from Navy ships already in the Middle East.
The Defense Department has also reversed an earlier position and are now declining to confirm how many forces are presently in Iraq, saying only that the number of officially assigned forces is below the current cap of 3,870.
“People come through on a temporary basis and go above and below the force cap all the time, but we remain under our force cap,” Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters on Monday.
But officials privately acknowledge that the total troop number, while it varies from day to day, now stands around 5,000. The more than 1,000 personnel above the official cap include the Marines in northern Iraq along with military officials handling foreign military sales and other defense cooperation matters.
Having the ability to add additional personnel, whose deployments are seen as more temporary than the force of 3,870, “gives the theater commander the ability to move forces around,” a U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues. The 3,870 troops include American trainers and advisers arrayed around the country.
If the Obama administration were to classify the Marines and other additional personnel as permanent, it would be required to increase that official force level reported in its monthly “boots on the ground” notification to Congress.
The White House, mindful of Obama’s pledge to end the ground wars initiated by his predecessor, has sought to minimize the combat role of American forces in Iraq. But officials have recognized the need for enhanced support to Iraqi forces, which are only slowly making progress is dislodging militants from major urban areas.
The United States has already taken steps in recent months to augment its campaign, including establishing a new Special Operations task force. Senior officials are expected to consider additional steps when the Iraqi government launches an offensive to reclaim the city of Mosul.
The number of U.S. troops is a sensitive topic for Iraqis following the 2003-2011 war that saw over 150,000 U.S. troops on Iraqi soil at its peak. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, already grappling with a fiscal crisis, is facing intensifying pressure over widespread corruption.