Washington beefs up Iraq military presence

Forces deployed to strengthen security at the U.S. embassy, support facilities and Baghdad international airport

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The United States is beefing up its military presence in Iraq by deploying around 300 additional troops, including attack helicopters and drones to aid Iraqi military in Baghdad, officials said on Monday.

The decision declared by the Pentagon, granted them a security role at Baghdad International Airport on the front line against any attacks by an al-Qaeda splinter group, three years after the U.S.'s military withdrawal.

The reinforcements will include troops to fly and maintain Apache attack helicopters and unarmed surveillance drones, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference.

The drones were not Reapers or Predators but smaller Shadow robotic aircraft that are launched from a catapult, a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

The Shadow aircraft, which have been heavily used by U.S. forces previously in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are about 14 feet (4 meters) long and can fly at an altitude of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).

The U.S. security contingent will concentrate on safeguarding access to the Baghdad airport as well as the embassy, the official said.

Kirby told reporters that the additional troops would “help provide extra security for our facilities, our people, our property, and to also allow -- to help allow the State Department and the embassy to continue to function as it is.”

The embassy remains “open,” he added.

The Pentagon said around 200 forces has been deployed in Iraq on Sunday, to strengthen security at the U.S. embassy, support facilities and Baghdad international airport.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity with Reuters, said that another 100 troops reached Iraq and many of them would also be stationed at the airport.

"I think there's an appropriate level of concern about the airport," the official told Reuters news agency, stating it was a key strategic point for transportation.

President Barack Obama sanctioned the deployment of the 300 military advisors in Iraq, partially to establish two joint operation centers. This will help the U.S. to evaluate if any additional support is needed. Around 180 of those advisors are already in Iraq.

This decision by Obama is an attempt to aid Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to push back militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who have made shocking advances towards the capital.

Another U.S. official, also speaking anonymously, said the United States was also aiming to establish another joint military operations center in Iraq's Kurdish region.

Although the decisions are not finalized, the official also mentioned that the new operations center could be placed in the province of Duhok, north of Iraq near Syria and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is committed to sending F-16 fighter jets to the Iraqi military in aid against ISIS militants, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said when asked by Al Arabiya correspondent Nadia Bilbassy on Monday.

"There is one piece of military equipment that has attracted a lot of attention. That's a delivery of F-16s, and scheduled for later this year. I can tell you that the United States remains committed to delivering the F-16s to Iraq as quickly as possible," said Earnest.

He was asked if he found it ironic that the United States, Russia and Iran have similar interests in sending military aid to support the Iraqi government.

"The United States has also offered to support the Iraqi government," replied Earnest.

He also added: "There have also been a number of military sales from the United States to Iraq to try to support the Maliki regime and the Iraqi government."

Earnest noted the U.S.'s disappointment of Maliki's failure in pursuing a kind of "inclusive governing agenda", that would ensure a long-term success for his government. He also mentioned the United States' effort in keeping close ties with the Iraqi leaders through many phone calls between Secretary Kerry, Vice President Biden and other Iraqi leaders.

Earnest was then asked by Bilbassy on another topic, whether Maliki is currently a viable candidate for Iraq, to which he replied: "That's a decision for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi political leadership to decide."

(With AFP)

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