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Obama Orders 450 Troops To Help Iraq Fight Self-Declared Islamic State


The U.S. is sending more military advisers to Iraq. President Obama said the 450 troops will work with local forces fighting ISIS. The goal - to help train Sunni soldiers in Iraq's Anbar province. ISIS fighters seized Ramadi, Anbar's capital, last month. The additional American troops are deploying at a time when many wonder whether Iraq can overcome its sectarian differences. Later in the program, we'll talk with former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. First, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: There are these 450 U.S. military trainers. Is this actually a change in U.S. strategy, or are we seeing more of the same?

BOWMAN: You know, it's really more of the same. The U.S. will now have about 3,500 troops there. And we're seeing a bit of a change in focus with these new troops - trying to get more Sunni tribal members to fight alongside the army that is largely Shia and take on the so-called Islamic State. Now, they'll be working out of a base not too far from Ramadi. It's called Taqaddum, and it's also, interestingly, where the Marines were stationed during the war. And, of course, Ramadi is a provincial capital, as you said, that was seized by ISIS just a several weeks ago.

CORNISH: Why this focus, though, on the Sunnis?

BOWMAN: Well, there just haven't been enough Sunnis participating in the fight against ISIS. Some of the Sunni tribal members in Iraq actually support ISIS because they've been mistreated or ignored by the Iraqi government. Others are just simply on the fence. So this is an effort to bring in the tribes, arm them and train them and get them to protect their own areas and also take part in this fight for Ramadi.

Audie, I was sitting in this chair two weeks ago, and we talked about an operation to retake Ramadi. At that time, the Pentagon said maybe a couple of days, maybe a week. Here we are, two weeks later. There's no one even talking about when that might happen.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what's the thinking among top military strategists about the use or efficacy of sending more trainers? I mean, what are you hearing about that?

BOWMAN: Well, some say having the trainers in Anbar might bring in some more Sunnis to help fight ISIS. That's a very good thing. But more and more people I talk with say this strategy of training up the Iraqis, providing some U.S. airstrikes just isn't enough to turn this thing around.

So what more can you do? The Obama administration says it won't send in U.S. combat troops or even small numbers of, let's say, Green Berets or people to call in airstrikes. They say the Iraqis must do this themselves. That's the only way to make it work. But I spoke with one senior military official recently who said you can't even call this a stalemate now. He said the word is losing.

CORNISH: It sounds like this gets back to a key question about whether or not there will be or could be a political solution on the ground in Iraq.

BOWMAN: Well, you know, that's the big question here. Can there be a political solution here? And we had General Dempsey on recently - on the show - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. And he said, you know, there are underlying issues here - underlying problems in Iraq. And one of them - one of the big things here is this sectarian divide we were just talking about. And he says listen, airstrikes and trainers simply can't resolve that issue.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman speaking to us about the latest troops being sent to Iraq. Tom, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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