WASHINGTON, July 3, 2014 —
U.S. military efforts in Iraq are focusing on securing the American Embassy and personnel in Baghdad, assessing the situation in the country and advising Iraqi security forces, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.
Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey briefed the Pentagon press corps, focusing on the U.S. mission and role in Iraq.
Both are important components of President Barack Obama’s strategy in Iraq, the secretary said, which involves supporting Iraqi forces and helping Iraq's leaders resolve the political crisis that enabled the advance of the armed militant extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
“By reinforcing security at the U.S. embassy [and] its support facilities at Baghdad International Airport, we're helping provide our diplomats time and space to work with Sunni, Kurd and Shia political leaders as they attempt to form a new inclusive national unity government,” Hagel told reporters.
By better understanding conditions on the ground and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces, he added, “we'll be better able to help advise them as they combat ISIL forces inside their own country.”
About 200 U.S. military advisers are on the ground in Iraq, said Hagel, noting that the United States, with Iraqi assistance, has established a joint operations center in Baghdad.
“We have personnel on the ground in Erbil where our second joint operations center has achieved initial operating capability … [and] assessment teams are evaluating the capabilities and cohesiveness of Iraqi forces,” the secretary said.
The six U.S. assessment teams are focusing on questions such as the strength and cohesion of the Iraqi security forces, the strength and locations of ISIL, how deeply embedded they are, how each component fits into the larger sectarian dynamic at play in the country, the process of forming a new government in the country, and other material issues, Hagel added.
“Both the chairman and I are getting some assessments back, early assessments, through [U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III] who is overseeing all of this,” the secretary said. “We won't have the full complement of all those assessments for a while but that is ongoing.”
The teams in Iraq today have one mission and that is assessments, he added.
“I don't know what the assessments are going to come back and say or what they would recommend. We'll wait to see what that is and what Gen. Austin and Gen. Dempsey then recommend,” the secretary said.
“None of these troops are performing combat missions. None will perform combat missions,” Hagel said.
“The situation in Iraq … is complex and fluid. But there's no exclusively military solution to the threats posed by ISIL,” he added. “Our approach is deliberate and flexible. It is designed to bolster our diplomatic efforts and support the Iraqi people. We will remain prepared to protect our people and our interests in Iraq.”
As most Americans enjoy the Fourth of July holiday weekend, service members around the world, especially in the Middle East, will stay postured and ready for any contingency in that region, the secretary told reporters.
“As we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, I want to particularly express my gratitude to the men and women and their families who serve our nation at home and abroad, both civilian and in uniform,” Hagel said.
“I thank you all for what you do to keep our country safe every day,” he added.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)