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World

Far From The Battlefield, U.S. Troops Will Assist Iraqi Forces

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We'll look more closely now at exactly what U.S. troops are assigned to do in Iraq. President Obama is sending more advisors, raising the total U.S. troop presence to about 1,500 - of whom about a few hundred will directly advise Iraq's army. The president emphasized their job is not to engage in ground combat. So that is not our question this morning. The question is how Americans will advise Iraqi forces. There are different ways to do that. And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports the U.S. advisors will try for a less hands-on role than they might.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The president was clear in his speech. America will not, as he put it, be dragged into another ground war in Iraq. The Americans will launch more airstrikes, send in weapons and advisors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference. But we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.

BOWMAN: And what they must do, the president said, is take the fight to the group called the Islamic State. Already those fighters have taken over territory in Northern and Western Iraq including large cities. So Americans will advise and assist those Iraqi forces far from the battlefield - inside headquarters.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: It's very optimistic to think we can rely on the Iraqis to get that all done themselves and just advise them at the very top level.

BOWMAN: That is Michael O'Hanlon. He's a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. He proposes sending in significant numbers of American Special Operations teams to conduct raids with Iraqi forces. Other U.S. troops could work in the field training Iraqi soldiers. He estimates all this could require 1,000 to 5,000 American troops.

O'HANLON: It will be necessary to introduce mentoring and advising teams even at the unit level, even at the combat unit level. The Iraqi Army is going to need to essentially in the end do its own search into cities like Ramadi and Fallujah and Tikrit and Mosul.

BOWMAN: But it was in Mosul that the Iraqi Army came apart back in June. Troops dropped their weapons and ran as Islamic State fighters advanced. A big part of the problem was poor leadership. The Iraqi government replaced competent Sunni commanders with Shiite loyalists. Since then, American advisers have estimated that between one-third and one-half of the Iraqi Army either had poor leadership or units that simply disintegrated. Retired Lieutenant General Jim Dubik helped train Iraqi forces during the war. He says a new Iraqi government will have to reach out to those Sunni military officers who were forced out.

JIM DUBIK: It's important to bring back proficient commanders - whether they're the attacked ones, you know, I think is immaterial. If the Iraqis do make the leadership changes and do the adequate preparation, I think that we can see that they'll be up to the task with our support.

BOWMAN: Dubik says a few hundred more trainers should be sufficient at first to provide training to plan a large counteroffensive against the Islamic State forces. Eventually, more Americans will likely be needed.

DUBIK: Once the counteroffensive begins, I believe that we will need some small number of advisors who will also act as air controllers so that the use of the air arm will be as precise as the American public expects.

BOWMAN: Air controllers - that means American special operators with laser pointers or communications gear who could patrol with Iraqi combat forces and help them call in American airstrikes. Not only would that mean more troops, it would get close to what the Obama Administration doesn't want - Americans involved in ground combat. And the American effort is not just to help the current Iraqi Army. President Obama told the American people it's to build a new force.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We'll also support Iraq's efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL's control.

O'HANLON: I think that's very realistic and politically smart.

BOWMAN: Again, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

O'HANLON: But it requires a creation of a whole new kind of Iraqi military formation that doesn't presently exist.

BOWMAN: The new formation will need American advisors. The 475 President Obama announced he would send the other night - one Congressman calls that a down payment. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.