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U.S. adds more troops to Iraq ahead of Mosul offensive

U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq train the 72nd Brigade at Basmaya base in January. The United States is prepared to send more troops to Iraq to advise and train for an upcoming offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, a U.S. official said. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The U.S. military will place more than 600 additional troops in Iraq to support local forces in the upcoming battle to recapture the key city of Mosul from the Islamic State, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had approved the decision in an effort to accelerate recent efforts to reclaim territory held by the Islamic State. “The coalition will continue to increase the pressure on ISIL in Mosul and wherever it seeks refuge in Iraq,” Carter said in a statement. ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.

Carter said the fresh troops will advise local forces and provide intelligence, maintenance and logistics support during the operation to seize Mosul, a major urban area that has been under Islamic State control for more than two years.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon that the increase of 615 service members will bring the official number of troops in Iraq to 5,262. The actual number, including troops on shorter-term assignments who are not counted in that official number, could be well above 6,000.

The Obama administration has gradually added thousands of troops to its renewed military presence in Iraq, a sign of confidence in its strategy to defeat the Islamic State — and of the continued weaknesses of Iraq’s army. U.S. and allied air power, along with help in ensuring that the right troops, supplies and weaponry are in place, is expected to be crucial in this major operation.

The battle for Mosul is not expected to be easy. Militants have been moving swiftly against would-be opponents in the city as they strengthen their defenses ahead of the expected attack.

In a statement on his website, Abadi said his government had requested a “final increase” to the U.S. troop presence, but said U.S. service members would begin to go home immediately after the recapture of Mosul.

U.S. officials have not said exactly when the offensive will begin, but have suggested that it could get underway next month.

Davis said that some of the additional troops will be sent to Qayyarah, an air base about an hour’s drive south of Mosul that will be an important jumping-off point for the Mosul operation. Others will be stationed at the Assad air base in western Anbar province.