CREDIT: AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool
As the Fourth of July weekend comes to an end, most Americans are still recovering from BBQs and fireworks displays. For several hundred U.S. military personnel, however, the end of the weekend just marks the start of another week in Iraq, helping the struggling Iraqi government fend off the militants that have taken over a vast swath of territory. Since the crisis first began in mid-June, the Obama administration has announced several waves of troop movement into the region and into Iraq specifically. As of last week, the announced number heading for Iraq now totals 770, with almost all of those forces already in place prior to the recent holiday. Here’s a look at what those newly returned soldiers and other military personnel will be doing in Iraq for the foreseeable future:
Protecting the U.S. Embassy
The majority of the forces are being sent to Iraq with the goal of protecting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The embassy there is a massive, fortress-like compound — the largest and most expensive embassy the U.S. maintains — but despite its size, administration officials are still concerned with the potential for attacks on such a clear target. After the 2012 attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, which has lead to a massive political headache for the White House in the months since, the State Department has been eager to pull diplomats out of harm’s way.
It’s because of that worry that, as outgoing Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement on June 16, that the 270 military personnel that Obama was sending to the region would be assisting with “the temporary relocation of some staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the U.S. Consulates General in Basra and Erbil and to the Iraq Support Unit in Amman.” Despite that, the administration insisted the “U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains open, and a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission.” After that initial wave of 275 was approved, a second letter was sent to Congress under the War Powers Resolution on June 30th, announcing the authorization of another 200 personnel to Baghdad, bring the total charged with providing security up to 470.
Training and assessing the Iraqi military
The other main group of U.S. personnel are being deployed mostly to help shore up the beleaguered Iraqi security forces. “I also ordered up to approximately 300 additional U.S. Armed Forces personnel in Iraq to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces,” Obama wrote in a letter to Congress on June 26th, one week after announcing the new forces in a Briefing Room statement. Despite billions being spent previously on training the Iraqi security forces, the army collapsed in the face of the militants’ initial push south last month.
Searching for targets for U.S. airstrikes
The president hasn’t yet said that he would launch airstrikes against the militants fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But he also hasn’t ruled it out. And if the green-light is given to launch, the military wants to be prepared. The 300 troops that Obama announced on June 19th were also charged with establishing “joint operations centers with Iraqi security forces to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the threat posed by [ISIS.] Some of these personnel were already in Iraq as part of the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation, and others began deploying into Iraq on June 24.” As part of that mission, these forces will be examining incoming intelligence to determine whether credible targets for airstrikes even exist — and if they do, giving American pilots the information they need.
Flying drones — armed and unarmed
The U.S.’ unarmed surveillance drones are now flying over Iraq again, providing intelligence for both the Americans and the Iraqi security forces. Both manned and unmanned reconnisaince aircraft are making roughly 40 flights over Iraq per day, according to the Pentagon. According to AFP, the unmanned craft will mostly be smaller Shadow drones, which are launched from a catapult and have previously been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These drones, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said, would “help provide extra security for our facilities, our people, our property, and to also allow — to help allow the State Department and the embassy to continue to function as it is.”
But, according to the New York Times, there are also armed Predator drones patrolling the skies over Baghdad. Flying out of an American airbase in Kuwait, a Pentagon official told the Times that the patrols were “an operation meant to offer added protection to the first American military assessment teams that are fanning out in and around Baghdad to help the Iraqi military combat the insurgents.” Kirby later confirmed the presence of armed Predators, saying, “With the introduction now of additional U.S. personnel, in advisory capacity designed to go outside the Embassy confines, the commander on the ground … thought it was prudent to arm some of these aircraft to make sure we had additional force protection measures in place.”
Protecting the Baghdad airport
When the administration announced the second wave of troops being sent to Baghdad, it was with an additional mission and set of equipment. While the first wave was solely charged with protecting the embassy, the June 30th announcement added that the Baghdad International Airport would also fall under U.S. protection. “This force consists of additional security forces, rotary-wing aircraft [helicopters], and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support,” the letter to Congress read. “This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat.”
As airports are a key point in supply-line management, they remain one of the most important symbols for controlling a territory — losing Baghdad’s airport to ISIS would essentially cede control over the entry of planes into the city. With this in mind, it makes sense for the U.S. forces to help protect it. But it also calls attention to a line that was in all three force announcements: “This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”
That open-ended commitment, and the slow uptick in the number of forces being sent, already has some concerned about the potential for “mission creep” in this latest foray into Iraq. Sen. John Walsh (D-MT), the only Iraq veteran in the Senate, last week called the deployment “troubling,” asking “how many Americans will we deploy? How much money will we spend?” The Pentagon for its part has denied that there’s been any change in mission so far. “It’s very fluid, and the commander-in-chief and the military leadership here in the building, I think, expect and should have a certain measure of flexibility here in how we … manage the resources available,” Kirby told reporters last week.