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Obama doubles US troop levels in Iraq

Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
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In a dramatic post-election surge, President Barack Obama is doubling the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 3,000 and asking Congress for $5.6 billion for the war against the so-called Islamic State, officials said Friday. Obama aides denied that the timing was political or that the escalation amounted to "mission creep."

The Pentagon said the new forces would deploy to Iraq “in a noncombat role, to expand our advise-and-assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces.”

It was the second major announcement regarding Obama’s undeclared and open-ended campaign against the extremist group since Tuesday’s elections. After months of rejecting calls to seek new war-making authority from Congress, Obama reversed course on Wednesday.

The U.S. Central Command overseeing the campaign will use some of the funds to set up two “advise-and-assist operations centers” outside Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurd capital of Irbil. It will also set up sites across Iraq for training 12 brigades of local forces, including nine from the Iraqi army and three of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on a conference call arranged by the White House, denied that the new deployment amounted to “mission creep” or that the announcement had been timed for after the election to minimize the political fallout.

“Even with these additional personnel, the mission is not changing,” the official said, stressing that U.S. ground troops will not be going “back into combat.”

“We are keeping the limiting factor on the mission, we are adding personnel to better carry out the mission, and to support the Iraqis as they move forward with their campaign plan,” the official said.

As for any suggestions that the timing of the announcement was political, the official said “it really was not driven at all by the political calendar.”

Asked whether Obama had set a ceiling on the number of troops he was willing to deploy to Iraq, the official demurred.

“In terms of numbers, I don’t think we want to specify that we’re going to be steady at a very specific number,” the official said. “I’m not anticipating there being additional requirements on the horizon, in terms of personnel, but I also don’t want to suggest that we’re going to set a specific ceiling.”

But, he added: “We’ll assess whether there need to be additional advisers based on judgments on the ground going forward.”