The Obama administration is preparing a plan to set up a new US military base in Iraq’s Anbar province and send several hundred additional trainers and advisers to help bolster Iraqi forces that have struggled in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Officials said president Barack Obama is considering authorising an increase of under 500 troops to boost the capacity of the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters.
“We are considering a range of options to accelerate the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces,” National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said.
“Those options include sending additional trainers to Iraq.”
Recent victories by Islamic State militants in Iraq’s Ramadi and Syria’s Palmyra have thrown into doubt president Obama’s strategy of depending on US airpower and Iraqi ground forces to win the war.
In response, the Pentagon has drawn up plans to augment an existing mission rather than forge a new approach.
“We’ve determined it is better to train more Iraqi security forces,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said.
“Because the forces we’ve trained are performing better than expected, we feel it’s in everyone’s interest to train more.”
The current US mission comprises 3,100 advisers and trainers.
A larger deployment could mean increasing the number of training sites from the four currently being used, another official said.
The training effort would carry “a particular emphasis on the Sunnis,” the official added.
Until now, Baghdad has overseen the training of Sunni tribal fighters, who are likely to be key to victory in Ramadi and the surrounding Anbar province.
The Obama administration is looking at American troops directly training the Sunni volunteers.
Weapons deliveries, however, would continue to flow through the Iraqi central government.
Iraq’s Sunni Muslim community has yet to join the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in large numbers.
Among Sunnis there is lingering distrust of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which IS fighters have sought to exploit.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed hope that even a modest increase in the US presence could help Iraq forces plan and carry out a counterattack to retake Ramadi.
But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear during a visit to Jerusalem that there were no plans to fundamentally alter president Obama’s military strategy that has so far kept US ground troops off the front lines.