By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 20, 2014 – Special operators that President Barack Obama is sending to Iraq, up to 300 U.S. military personnel, will form assessment teams to evaluate the situation on the ground there and boost Iraq’s ability to counter the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL.
During a press briefing here this afternoon, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the first set of assessment teams will focus on three areas in Iraq.
The teams will first assess “the state, the cohesiveness and the capability of the Iraqi security forces,” Kirby said.
Also, he added, the teams will assess “the situation on the ground to help us gain more intelligence and more information about what ISIL is doing and how they're doing it.”
The third area, Kirby said, “is, quite frankly, to assess the feasibility and future potential for follow-on [U.S.] advisory teams.”
The United States hasn’t been present in Iraq in large numbers since 2011, the admiral said. Before adding advisers, he added, the president and his security team need a better sense of where military advisers will be used, for how long, and in what units.
“Just like in any unfolding situation, even a disaster-relief operation, one of the first things you do is to deploy assessment teams to [determine] requirements before you start flowing in support,” Kirby said. “That's what I think these first couple of teams will do for us.”
In a June 19 statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he supported the president’s decision to send military advisers to Iraq.
“[And] as the president has repeatedly made clear, Iraq's problems cannot be resolved through American action alone, or through military force alone,” the secretary said.
“The only viable, long-term solution is a political one that brings together the Iraqi people and addresses the legitimate interests and concerns of all of Iraq's communities,” Hagel added. “Iraq's government must summon the courage to unite and lead all of its people.”
Kirby said the first few teams, which are not yet operational, will be drawn from personnel already in Iraq, working in U.S. Embassy-Baghdad’s Office of Security Cooperation.
Advisers and teams that come later will be from inside U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, he added. Such countries include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and others.
“The teams will assess and advise. They are not being sent to participate in combat,” Kirby reaffirmed, adding that he expects assessment teams beyond the first few to enter the country “over the next week or so.”
Kirby said U.S. military services routinely perform such missions worldwide with military services from other countries -- in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, the Americas and elsewhere.
“Force protection remains a priority,” the admiral said.
The advisers, he added, “just like troops that do advising missions elsewhere around the world, have the right of self-defense. And just like anywhere else in the world, if there's a situation where we need to get them to medical care, we're going to do it as quickly as we possibly can.”
The total number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, including the advisers Obama is sending, is less than 400, Kirby said.
The United States also provides intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance support to Iraq’s government, he said, and the support is intensifying.
“We now are flying enough flights, manned and unmanned, that we provide around-the-clock coverage. We're not looking at the whole country, [just] parts … that are of greatest interest,” the admiral said.
Once the United States has better information about the situation, a decision can be made about follow-on activity, he added.
Incoming troops will be embedded, at least initially, at the headquarters level down to about the brigade level, he said.
The Iraqi government requested the mission and the United States is consulting on its actions with the Iraqis, Kirby said.
“As we do elsewhere around the world, we will ensure that our troops have the appropriate legal protections … so they can operate as they need to operate,” the admiral said.
Asked about the Defense Department’s level of concern on the takeover by ISIL militants of Saddam Hussein’s Al Muthanna chemical weapons facility, Kirby said the best understanding is that the material inside the facility is old and “not likely to be able to be accessed or used against anyone right now.”
U.S. information about the facility isn’t perfect, he said, and any progress that ISIL fighters make is a concern.
“But we aren't viewing this particular site and their holding it as a major issue at this point,” Kirby added. “Should they even be able to access the materials, frankly, it would likely be more of a threat to them than anyone else.”
In response to another question, the admiral said the Defense Department has indications that there are “small numbers” of Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives in Iraq but that he’s seen no indication of ground forces or major units.
Kirby called the Iraq mission a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement to help the U.S. get eyes on the ground, get a better sense of what’s going on and “to create the kind of intelligence we need should the president decide to take other action.”
The Defense Department has good support on the mission from allies and partners in the region, he added, “and we appreciate that.”
Regarding the Iraqi security forces, Kirby said, “we're starting to see some cohesiveness and some fight and that's certainly encouraging, but certainly nobody's … willing to stop monitoring it or to stop having a shared sense of concern about the progress that ISIL has made.”