BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Monday that the Pentagon will deploy an additional 560 U.S. troops to Iraq, a widening of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State that will place American military advisers at a key airfield seized by Iraqi security forces Saturday.
The decision will elevate the number of U.S. troops the Pentagon counts in Iraq to 4,647. Unofficially, that figure is probably closer to 6,000 when considering a variety of American troops who deploy on temporary assignments that the Pentagon does not include in its official tally.
Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the additional troops will “predominantly” be assigned to Qayyarah Air Base, installing everything from additional security measures to communications gear. The base was described as an important springboard to take back the city of Mosul, which is the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and about 40 miles north of the airfield.
“At every step in this campaign, we have generated and seized additional opportunities to hasten ISIL’s lasting defeat,” Carter told several dozen service members gathered at Baghdad International Airport, using an an acronym for the Islamic State. “These additional U.S. forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight.”
The announcement came after Carter spent the day in Iraq meeting with U.S. military commanders and senior Iraqi officials. He said before arriving that the air base also could serve as an aviation hub. A small number of American troops arrived and carried out a “brief site survey” Sunday, said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss recent operations.
Carter told reporters traveling with him Sunday that the airfield seizure would create a “pincer” effect, placing Mosul between Iraqi security forces advancing from the south and Kurdish peshmerga forces maneuvering from the north. The United States already had established one staging base southeast of Mosul, in Makhmour, in March, but Qayyarah Air Base will provide another foothold, the Pentagon chief said.
The air base, about 20 miles west of the town of Qayyarah, is significantly larger than the base at Makhmour. Known to U.S. troops as Qayyarah Airfield West during the Iraq War, it includes at least one runway long enough to fly heavy cargo planes and room to fly numerous helicopters. It served as the site of a U.S. brigade headquarters known as Forward Operating Base Endurance during the last war.