The U.S. is putting some of its most elite special operations combat troops on the ground for the first time in the year-plus fight against Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Their mission is simple – find and destroy all terror leadership in the region.
Their targets include Al Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State who claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. military will deploy a new special operations force to Iraq to step up the fight against ISIS militants, who are determined to hold territory they have seized in Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama previously announced he was sending fewer than 50 special operations forces to Syria.
The announcement of the new special operations force to Iraq comes as Republicans have called for more U.S. boots on the ground, while war-weary Americans stand divided about the prospect of greater military involvement.
Carter said the number in the new expeditionary force will be “larger” than 50. According to a U.S. official, the new U.S. step against IS will include over 200 troops, and will include elite assault teams, aviation units and other support units. It would likely be based in Irbil in northern Iraq. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to publicly discuss military planning.
Carter said the new force would focus on helping Iraq defend its borders and build its security forces, but also would be in position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria. Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that over time, the special operations force will be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIS leaders. He said that will improve intelligence and generate more targets for attacks.
“This is an important capability because it takes advantage of what we’re good at. We’re good at intelligence, we’re good at mobility, we’re good at surprise,” Carter said. “We have the long reach that no one else has. And it puts everybody on notice in Syria. You don’t know at night who’s going to be coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of [ISIS’s] leadership and followers to have.”
Carter said the force might be American-only, but more likely would be mixed with Kurdish troops or others who are fighting the militants. He said the new force would conduct operations similar to two conducted earlier this year.
In October, U.S. special operations troops and Iraqi forces raided a compound in northern Iraq, freeing about 70 Iraqi prisoners who were facing execution. One U.S. service member was killed in the raid, the first American combat death in Iraq since the U.S. began its campaign against ISIS in August 2014. In May, a Delta Force raid in Syria killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf, yielding intelligence about the group’s structure and finances. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.
The Associated Press contributed to this article