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Looming Iraq battle draws in 200 more U.S. troops

Last Updated Apr 18, 2016 11:23 AM EDT

BAGHDAD-- Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Baghdad Monday to talk to Iraqi leaders about beefing up Iraqi forces working to retake the northern city of Mosul, a critical goal in the effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Carter said the U.S. will send 200 more troops and a number of Apache helicopters to Iraq to assist in the figh.

He said the new forces will largely be used to advise Iraqi forces closer to the front lines.

The decision reflect weeks of discussions with commanders and Iraqi leaders, and a decision by President Barack Obama to increase the authorized troop level in Iraq by 217 - or from 3,870 to 4,087.

Most of the additional troops would probably be Army special forces, who have been used to advise and assist the Iraqis. The remainder would include some trainers, security forces for the advisers, and more maintenance teams for the Apaches.

The advise-and-assist teams - made up of about a dozen troops each - would embed with Iraqi brigades and battalions, putting them closer to the fight, and at greater risk from mortars and rocket fire. They would have security forces with them.

Carter has said the U.S. is also considering a number of options, including more airstrikes, cyberattacks and American troops on the ground.

Late last month, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters they were considering various kinds of troop increases in the region.

Some of those decisions could become clearer in the coming days and weeks. Mr. Obama will be in Saudi Arabia later this week to meet with Gulf leaders and talk about the fight against ISIS.

Carter has said the U.S. wants Persian Gulf nations to help Iraq rebuild its cities once ISIS militants are defeated.

The terror group has established a key stronghold in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and retaking it from the militants is the key end game, according to the U.S. official.

But U.S. military and defense officials also have made clear that winning back Mosul will be challenging, because the insurgents are dug in and have likely peppered the landscape with roadside bombs and other traps for any advancing military.

During his visit to Baghdad, Carter is slated to meet with Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. military commander for the ISIS fight, as well as a number of Iraqi leaders including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.

He also is expected to speak by phone with the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani.

The senior defense official told reporters traveling with Carter that while Iraqi leaders have been reluctant to have a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq, they also need certain capabilities that only more American or coalition forces can provide.

Iraqi leaders, said the official, will back the addition of more U.S. troops if they directly coincide with specific capabilities that Iraq forces needs to fight ISIS and take back Mosul.

As an example, the U.S. helped the Iraqis with temporary bridges in order for troops to cross the river and move into Ramadi late last year and retake it from ISIS militants. The official was not authorized to talk publicly about the ongoing discussions so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Politically, neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials are looking to greatly expand the number of American troop in Iraq.

This is Carter's third trip to Iraq since becoming defense secretary early last year. In December officials were trying to carefully negotiate new U.S. assistance with Iraqi leaders, who often have a different idea of how to wage war.

At that time, the Iraqis turned down a U.S. offer to provide Apache helicopters. But the aircraft are back on the table during this visit and could be more helpful in the Mosul fight.

U.S. leaders have also made it clear that ongoing political disarray and economic problems must be dealt with in order for Iraq to move forward.

This week, the country has been struggling with a political crisis, as efforts to oust the speaker of parliament failed. Al-Abadi's efforts to get a new Cabinet in place met resistance, and influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a deadline on Saturday, giving parliament 72 hours to vote in a new Cabinet.

At the same time, the costs of the war against ISIS, along with the plunge in the price of oil -- which accounts for 95 percent of Iraq's revenues -- have caused an economic crisis, adding fresh urgency to calls for reform. Iraqi officials predict a budget deficit of more than $30 billion this year.