WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has said American forces being sent to a new operations center in the heart of the war against Islamic State will not engage in combat, but they will do almost everything but fight to support the beleaguered Iraqi forces.
U.S. defense officials say the tasks of the troops going to Taqaddum air base will range from advising Iraqi commanders how to ensure soldiers have enough bullets to integrating air power into combat plans.
Obama on Wednesday authorized deployment of up to 450 troops to work with the dispirited 8th Iraqi army division as it tries to regroup and ultimately drive the Islamist forces back out of the city of Ramadi that they overran last month.
Americans are already operating at several other bases around the country to train, advise and support the Iraqis, who have had limited success against the Islamist militants occupying large swathes of the country in the last 18 months.
But the operation at Taqaddum, close to the Euphrates river 45 miles (75 km) west of Baghdad between major cities held by Islamic State, puts U.S. forces at the crux of the fight.
It is just 15 miles (25 km), a half-hour drive, east of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, and about 10 miles (15 km) to the west of Falluja, also controlled by Islamic State.
Adjacent to Lake Habbaniya, the base was used by American forces who took over the country in 2003 to oust President Saddam Hussein and is in oft-contested territory familiar to many veterans of that earlier war.
Elements of the 8th Iraqi army division were involved in the April rout at Ramadi and top U.S. military officials were scornful of their performance. Defense Secretary Ash Carter questioned whether they had the will to fight.
U.S. officials said the role of the Americans at Taqaddum would also be to try to inject new spirit into the Iraqi forces as well as help the program to recruit new forces from Sunni tribes in the region.
The Iraqi military program to attract Sunni tribal fighters was based in Ramadi but moved to Taqaddum when the city fell.
Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, asked if U.S. troops would be involved in helping Iraqis plan to retake Ramadi, Warren said, “Absolutely.”
He said U.S. military experts would help Iraqi military officers “generate their plans for future operations, help them improve their systems inside of their units so that they’re able to conduct operations and ... better employ their forces.”
Warren said the U.S. mission at Taqaddum would not, at least initially, have the people needed to carry out training in combat skills, which now being done at four other sites including al Asad air base further west in Anbar province.
It would advise the Iraqis “how to do everything from best deploy their troops, to improve their logistic systems, to increase their intelligence capabilities, to how to manage their administrative processes,” he said.
Warren said this could include establishing procedures to ensure ammunition reached soldiers who needed it or a broken rifle was quickly replaced. More generally, U.S. officers could work with Iraqi senior officers on battle planning.
“Much more importantly ... by having advisers and assisters there where the planning for future operations is being conducted, you can integrate coalition air power into that plan much more plainly, much more effectively,” he said.
Less than a quarter of the 450 U.S. troops would be engaged in the train and assist mission, defense officials said, while the rest would handle security and other missions. The United States already has 3,100 troops elsewhere in Iraq.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and W Simon