Special U.S. targeting force 'now in place' in Iraq: U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new U.S. force of special operations troops has arrived in Iraq and is preparing to work with Iraqi forces to go after Islamic State targets, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday.

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Carter disclosed the deployment in a broad speech to U.S. soldiers that sought to underscore American efforts to accelerate the campaign against Islamic State, both in Iraq and Syria.

“The specialized expeditionary targeting force I announced in December is now in place and is preparing to work with the Iraqis to begin going after ISIL’s fighters and commanders,” Carter said at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

While the force was expected to number only about 200, its deployment marks the latest expansion of U.S. military pressure on Islamic State. It also exposes American forces to greater risk, something President Barack Obama has done only sparingly.

The force is separate from another deployment last year of up to 50 U.S. special operations troops in Syria to coordinate on the ground with U.S.-backed rebels fighting in a civil war raging since 2011.

Carter said that smaller group of forces had already established contact with rebels, as well as new targets for airstrikes and “strikes of all kinds.”

“These operators have helped focus the efforts of the local, capable forces against key ISIL vulnerabilities, including their lines of communication,” Carter said.

Republicans have sought to portray Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamic State as flawed and insufficient, as the militants plot or inspire attacks far beyond their self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Obama, in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, warned against overstating the fight against Islamic State but said his administration is focused on destroying the extremist group.

Carter’s upbeat assessment emphasized advances by Iraqi forces -- including retaking control of the city of Ramadi -- and by U.S.-backed rebels in Syria. He focused on efforts to “collapse” the Islamic State’s power centers of al Raqqah, in Syria and Mosul, in Iraq.

“President Obama is committed to doing what it takes – as opportunities arise, as we see what works, and as the enemy adapts – until ISIL is delivered a lasting defeat,” he said.

Carter was addressing soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, 1,800 of whom will deploy to Iraq in the coming months, largely to train Iraqi forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

Beyond Syria and Iraq, Carter acknowledged that Islamic State was “metastasizing” in North Africa, Afghanistan and Yemen. That, he said, required a “nimble response” and pointed to a Nov. 13 strike that killed Islamic State’s leader in Libya.

He also pointed to December strikes that killed militants with links to the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

Carter said he would meet next week in Paris with defense ministers from six nations -- France, Britain, Australia, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. He called for “all of the capabilities they can bring to the field.”

“As I will emphasize in Paris next week, we must all do more,” he said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alan Crosby