US Ground Troops May Return to Iraq
Outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview on Friday the United States might eventually need to send non-combat ground troops to Iraq to help turn back Islamic State militants.
Hagel, who announced his resignation under pressure in November, said all options must be considered in Iraq, including sending troops for non-combat roles such as gathering intelligence and locating the IS targets, Reuters said in a report.
“I think it may require a forward deployment of some of our troops,” he said. “I would say we’re not there yet. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know.”
Hagel’s comments echoed testimony by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Congress last fall when he said US troops might have to take a larger role on the ground in Iraq.
Such a deployment would be in addition to the 4,500 US troops already committed to training and advising roles in Iraq.
Hagel also said he had conflicts with White House officials on releasing prisoners from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As secretary of defense, Hagel authorized which prisoners would be released and when. He said the White House did not agree with his cautious approach, saying there were disagreements on “the pace of the releases.”
Asked if he had been pressured, Hagel said, “we have had a lot of conversations” with the White House and Congress on the releases.
“Not everyone at the White House has agreed with me,” said Hagel of his methodology for deciding on detainee releases.
Hagel’s disclosure comes amid reports of western troops already engaging in combat against the IS, despite having been sent to Iraq in an ostensibly non-combat capacity.
On January 20, the Wall Street Journal reported that Canadian troops had exchanged fire with IS forces after coming under mortar attack from the militants, and responded with sniper fire, “neutralizing the mortar and the machine-gun position,” according to a Canadian special operations force commander.
The Canadian troops, send on a mission to train local Iraqi forces, came under attack after moving to the front line “to visualize what they had discussed over a map,” the Canadian official said.
On December 20, al-Jazeera TV reported that US troops from al-Assad military base, the biggest in Anbar, Iraq’s largest governate, clashed with militants while helping the Iraqi army repel attacks on the town of al-Baghdadi. A US military official told Bloomberg that although US troops can engage in self-defense if required, their mission is to prepare and support the Iraqi security forces in fighting IS, rather than to engage them militarily.
In November, Hagel said he would consider a recommendation from General Dempsey, to send ground troops to Iraq, if Dempsey were to make such a proposal.
“If we get to any other variation of recommendations from General Dempsey, we will deal with it, but we are not there yet,” Hagel said. In September, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Islamic State] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” the Washington Post reported.
Lieutenant General James Terry, the US commander of Operation Inherent Resolve against militants in Iraq and Syria, told Reuters in December that the up to 3,100 troops already authorized by President Obama to deploy to Iraq were to be joined by another 1,500 troops from allies of the US, to help train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting IS.