According to Defense secretary Ash Carter, a US “expeditionary force” will target Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to send a special operations intelligence and strike force of between 100 and 150 troops to Iraq to conduct raids on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, a senior Defense official told USA TODAY Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress about the extra troops Tuesday but did not specify how many. The Defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because officials were not authorized to comment publicly on details of the new force. The team will include intelligence analysts and special operations troops skilled in conducting raids, the source said. Often those troops include Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force.
Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that the commandos will coordinate with the Iraqi government and fight with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga troops. The new troops will be above the U.S. forces already in Iraq, the official said. The unit will have intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities and the forces to strike targets.
“These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter said, referring to the Islamic State by a commonly used acronym. “That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, and more momentum. The raids in Iraq will be done at the invitation of the Iraqi government and focused on defending its borders and building the (Iraqi security force’s) own capacity. This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”
Carter also confirmed a report in USA TODAY on Monday that the Pentagon was planning to send more commandos to Syria if the initial force of 50 found allies willing to fight and take ground from the Islamic State. The addition of more troops to Iraq and Syria represents a significant deepening of the U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State. The Obama administration has been reluctant to commit ground forces to the fight in Iraq and Syria.
The initial force special operators in Syria will work with local forces to gather intelligence on the ground and help enhance the use of air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition, Carter said. Where the special operations unit finds more opportunities to partner with local forces, more commandos will be added, Carter said.
“We are prepared to expand it,” Carter said.
Carter also told Congress that the U.S.-led coalition has expanded airstrikes in November to their highest level since the campaign began in August 2014. Several senior leaders from ISIL have also been killed and its source of revenue — illegally obtained oil — has been struck., he said.
The ISIL attacks in France, which killed 130 people on Nov. 13, has added a sense of urgency to the fight, Carter said.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon will seek to escalate the fight against ISIL.
“In the days ahead, we’ll be aggressive in looking for ways to reinforce success,” Dunford said. “And we’ll seize every opportunity to increase the tempo and effectiveness of our operations.”
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. special operators honed the ability to scoop up intelligence, find militants and either capture or kill them. Teams of Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force conducted several missions each night during the height of the fighting.
A Delta Force raid in northern Iraq in October underlined the cost of such missions. U.S. forces came to the aid of Kurdish partners who had been pinned down by enemy fire while trying to free hostages from an ISIL stronghold. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39, was killed by ISIL gunfire as he helped lead the mission, which freed 69 hostages.
The new unit will create uncertainty for ISIL’s leadership, Carter said.
“It puts everyone on notice in Syria,” Carter said. “You don’t know at night who’s coming through the window. And that’s the sensation we want all of ISIL’s leadership and followers to have.”
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the latest moves a “belated step forward.”
“However, today’s announcement is yet another reactive and incremental step, specifically responding to the Paris attacks, in a policy that has allowed the ISIL threat to metastasize to Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere across the globe, McCain said in a statement.
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