President Obama has authorized another 200 U.S. troops to secure the American Embassy in Iraq as well as Baghdad’s international airport, bringing the total U.S. deployments to Iraq this month to 775.
In a letter to Congress on Monday, his third in the past two weeks, Obama said the new deployments were “a prudent measure to protect U.S. citizens and property.”
He said the force was “equipped for combat” and would “remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”
A Pentagon statement said that the additional personnel arrived in Baghdad on Sunday, along with “a detachment of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles,” or drones, “which will bolster airfield and travel route security.”
On June 16, Obama authorized 275 troops to protect the embassy. Although most were sent immediately to Iraq, about 100 remained in Kuwait. Those 100 have now been deployed along with the 200 new troops.
Separately, Obama also authorized the deployment of 300 troops to Iraq to train and assist Iraqi forces fighting Islamist militants and to set up joint operation centers in Baghdad and in northern Iraq. Those troops are tasked with assessing the situation on the ground, and the capabilities of both the Iraqi army and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The State Department also said Monday that it is relocating additional personnel from the embassy to consulates in Basra, in the south, and Irbil, in the north, following initial relocations in mid-June.
The embassy “remains open and will continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement. Psaki said a “substantial majority” of embassy officials “will remain in place” and that there are no plans to evacuate the embassy.
But other officials said that the new military deployments were intended to protect the embassy and other facilities and to ensure escape routes if evacuation becomes necessary.
The current U.S. assessment is that Baghdad itself is not in immediate danger from advancing ISIS forces. Fighting continued Monday in Tikrit, about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, and there were reports of mortar attacks outside a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, about 35 miles south of Tikrit. At least nine people were wounded, a Samarra city official told the Associated Press.
Iraq’s newly elected parliament is due to hold its first meeting Tuesday, and U.S. officials have pressed the majority Shiites, and Sunni and Kurdish minorities, to quickly choose a government to unite the country as it confronts the militants.
Although the Iraqi constitution sets a timetable lasting for at least six weeks to choose the prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker, U.S. officials would like to see all three chosen this week. The Obama administration has said it is up to Iraqis to decide whether they want to retain Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in office, but it has made clear that it views Maliki, a Shiite, as divisive.
Sunnis and Kurds have said they will not participate in another government headed by Maliki, who has been prime minister since 2006.
Maliki’s government has asked the United States for air support against ISIS, a request that Obama has said he will consider, but only if Iraq takes steps toward more inclusive governance. The Pentagon has increased intelligence cooperation with Iraq and is flying 30 to 35 surveillance missions daily with drones and manned aircraft.
But although the administration has approved sales of F-16 jets and Apache helicopters, those shipments have been delayed amid congressional objections.
In the meantime, other countries have come to Maliki’s aid. Iran has reportedly sent military equipment and is also flying surveillance drones over Baghdad. On Sunday, Russia said it was sending warplanes and military experts, some of which arrived over the weekend.
Psaki, at a State Department briefing, said the administration did not have a problem with the Russian sales. “Iraq has purchased military equipment from a range of countries in the past, including Russia, including the Czech Republic, South Korea and others to fulfill their legitimate defense needs.”
U.S. sales, she added, have been “expedited in recent days. And certainly we are not surprised that Iraq would take steps to work with other countries in the region, as they have for some time, to gain the equipment that they need.”