On patrol: Iraqi forces taking part in the operation to dislodge Isis from Mosul © FT
The US is to send a further 560 troops to Iraq to help retake the city of Mosul, the latest escalation by the Obama administration of the military campaign against Isis.
In a surprise visit to Baghdad on Monday, US defence secretary Ashton Carter announced that most of the additional US forces would be based at an airfield 60 miles south of Mosul which was captured by Iraqi forces at the weekend.
Bringing the total number of US troops in Iraq to 4,647, the latest deployment comes days after President Barack Obama, who was elected on a pledge to wind down the wars in the Islamic world, announced that a US force of 8,400 would remain in Afghanistan when he leaves office.
The growing US presence in Iraq is part of the expected push by the Iraqi forces on Mosul, the country’s second-largest city which has been Isis’s main stronghold in Iraq since mid-2014.
US commanders said that the al-Qayyara air base, which Iraqi forces recaptured on Saturday, would be used as a springboard for the Mosul campaign and would help the Iraqi forces to move equipment and supplies much closer to the likely battle. On his Facebook page, Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, said it would “become an important base for liberating Mosul”.
Speaking to reporters at the weekend, Mr Carter said that the use of the air base would help create a “pincer movement” on Mosul, with Iraqi forces moving from the south and Kurdish peshmerga from the north and east.
“At every step in this campaign, we have generated and seized additional opportunities to hasten Isil’s lasting defeat,” Mr Carter said during his visit to Baghdad. “These additional US forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight.”
The US troops in Iraq will still officially be playing a supporting role to the Iraqi security forces; however, the Pentagon has said that its advisers would be close to the front line of fighting in order to provide tactical guidance. Almost all US troops in Iraq are officially on an advisory capacity.
The advance by the Iraqi forces at the weekend came as IHS Conflict Monitor said in a report that Isis had lost a quarter of its territory in the past 18 months — an area the size of Ireland.
However, Isis has been putting up a stiff defence of the northern Syrian town of Manbij, which is crucial to linking routes along its territory in Syria. The resistance could signal where the group may be prioritising its efforts as it faces pressure on multiple fronts.
Despite losing ground, such operations show Isis is still showing fighting capacity in some areas it has prioritised, especially when it can size up the weaknesses of its rivals. Kurdish forces leading the Manbij battle are likely to be less motivated to free the largely Arab town, while locals inside the area may be wary of the area being taken from Isis by Kurdish forces many local Arabs suspect would discriminate against them.
Isis also recently foiled an effort by a tiny unit of US-formed Syrian fighters, known as the New Syrian Army, to penetrate the border town of Albu Kamal, which could have allowed the coalition to cut the last main route between Iraq and Syria. Despite their ability to enter the town under air cover, they were forced to retreat by Isis’s effective use of snipers and suicide bomb attacks.