BAGHDAD: Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Baghdad Monday to talk to Iraqi leaders about beefing up Iraqi forces working to retake the northern city of Mosul, a critical goal in the effort to defeat the Islamic State group.
A senior U.S. official said that as the U.S. moves to help the Iraqis, it will also likely mean that at least a “small number” of additional American forces will go to the warzone.
Carter has said the U.S. is considering a number of options, including more airstrikes, cyberattacks and American troops on the ground.
Late last month, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he and Carter believe U.S. forces in Iraq will increase in the coming weeks. Any final decision would be worked out with the Iraqi government and require President Barack Obama’s approval.
Some of those decisions could become clearer in the coming days and weeks. Obama will be in Saudi Arabia later this week to meet with Gulf leaders and talk about the fight against the Islamic State group.
Carter has said the U.S. wants Persian Gulf nations to help Iraq rebuild its cities once IS militants are defeated.
The Islamic State group has established a key stronghold in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and retaking it from the militants is the key end game, according to the U.S. official.
But U.S. military and defense officials also have made clear that winning back Mosul will be challenging, because the insurgents are dug in and have likely peppered the landscape with roadside bombs and other traps for any advancing military.
During his visit to Baghdad, Carter is slated to meet with Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. military commander for the Islamic State fight, as well as a number of Iraqi leaders including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.
He also is expected to speak by phone with the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani.
The senior defense official told reporters traveling with Carter that while Iraqi leaders have been reluctant to have a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq, they also need certain capabilities that only more American or coalition forces can provide.
Iraqi leaders, said the official, will back the addition of more U.S. troops if they directly coincide with specific capabilities that Iraq forces needs to fight IS and take back Mosul.
As an example, the U.S. helped the Iraqis with temporary bridges in order for troops to cross the river and move into Ramadi late last year and retake it from the Islamic State militants. The official was not authorized to talk publicly about the ongoing discussions so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Politically, neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials are looking to greatly expand the number of American troop in Iraq.
This is Carter’s third trip to Iraq since becoming defense secretary early last year. In December officials were trying to carefully negotiate new U.S. assistance with Iraqi leaders, who often have a different idea of how to wage war.
At that time, the Iraqis turned down a U.S. offer to provide Apache helicopters. But the aircraft are back on the table during this visit and could be more helpful in the Mosul fight.
U.S. leaders have also made it clear that ongoing political disarray and economic problems must be dealt with in order for Iraq to move forward.
This week, the country has been struggling with a political crisis, as efforts to oust the speaker of parliament failed. Al-Abadi’s efforts to get a new Cabinet in place met resistance, and influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a deadline on Saturday, giving parliament 72 hours to vote in a new Cabinet.
At the same time, the costs of the war against IS, along with the plunge in the price of oil — which accounts for 95 percent of Iraq’s revenues — have caused an economic crisis, adding fresh urgency to calls for reform. Iraqi officials predict a budget deficit of more than $30 billion this year.