The military advisers being sent to Iraq by President Obama will not spot targets and call in airstrikes for Iraqi troops in the coming offensive against the ISIL terror group which may have tripled in size since June, the Pentagon said Friday.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “can muster” between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, far higher than the previous CIA estimate of 10,000, a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity and additional intelligence,” the statement said.
The spike in recruiting came after ISIL swept out of Syria in pickup trucks in June, routed the Iraqi army, and took control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq. A month later ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi declared an Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria, with himself as Caliph Ibrahim.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John Kirby , the Pentagon press secretary, said that the Defense Department concurred with the CIA estimate of ISIL’s growing strength.
“We support the intelligence community’s assessment,” Kirby said.
Kirby said the goal of the offensive ordered by President Obama in an address to the nation Wednesday was to “degrade by air while supporting indigenous forces.”
In the air campaign, the additional 475 military advisers being sent to Iraq by Obama will not spot targets and call in airstrikes for Iraqi troops, Kirby said.
Senior White House officials, speaking on background Wednesday, said the troops could be used in “developing targets” while working with the Iraqis, but Kirby said “their job is not to call in airstrikes.”
The 475 troops were expected to arrive in Iraq within a week and would be split into teams of 10-12 troops to serve as trainers and advisers with the Iraqi national security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The teams will operate at the brigade and headquarters levels. There is “no intention to have them engage in combat, go on foot patrol” or engage in any other activity that would bring them into close contact with the fighters of ISIL, Kirby said, but “they will still have the right to defend themselves.”
Kirby stressed the critical importance to the offensive of building a coalition of partner nations in the region to defeat ISIL and also to bring about the “destruction of their ideology” of extremism.
To line up partner nations, the Obama administration brought in retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, to act as a special envoy in coordinating the efforts of nations willing to contribute to the drive against ISIL, the Associated Press reported.
Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to have made a significant breakthrough in building the coalition Friday with agreement from Saudi Arabia to host training facilities for vetted members of the Free Syrian Army, which has been battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as well as ISIL in Syria.
Kirby said the agreement would allow for the training of up to 5,000 FSA troops to be sent back to the fight in Syria if Congress agreed to provide $500 million in funding for the effort. The main drawback to going after ISIL stronholds in Syria is that currently “we don’t have a partner on the ground in Syria.”
Kerry’s trip to the region was marred a flap with the White House and the Pentagon over his remarks in Saudi Arabia in which he declined to say that the U.S. was at war with ISIL>
In a CNN interview Thursday, Kerry said “What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter-terrorism operation, and it’s going to go on for some period of time.”
“If somebody wants to think about it as being at war with [ISIS] they can do so, but the fact is it is a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts,” Kerry said.
The White House and the Pentagon pushed back. “We are at war with ISIL,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest . “We know we are at war with ISIL,” Kirby said.
The addition of 475 U.S. troops in Iraq would bring the total of U.S. forces in Iraq to about 1,600, according to the Pentagon. Most of the troops are assigned to security duties at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, at the Baghdad airport and at the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, the Kurdish capital.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.