PENTAGON — Despite this week's announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama, the first U.S. military advisers on the ground in Baghdad have yet to start assessing the situation and how best to help Iraqi security forces fight back advancing Sunni militants.
According to a U.S. defense official, the wait is due to concerns over legal protections for U.S. forces, including immunity for military personnel from the Iraqi judicial system.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Friday the first teams of military advisers are still expected to start work within days.
“We’re working this carefully through the Iraqi government," he said. "[U.S. forces] will have the protections they need.”
Similar differences in 2011 scuttled a status of forces agreement that would have allowed thousands of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, but Kirby says this is different.
“What we’re talking about here is a very small number, up to 300, whose mission will be of a limited duration,” he said.
The Pentagon expects additional teams of advisers to arrive in Baghdad within the next week or so, and a defense official says the advisers, mostly U.S. Army Special Forces, are also expected to make contact with the Peshmerga, Kurdish fighters in the north, and the Shi’ite militias currently helping to bolster Iraqi security forces around Baghdad.
In the meantime, the United States continues to fly 24-hour surveillance over parts of Iraq.
Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula says the drones in particular should be giving the U.S. a good read on the situation on the ground.
“These aircraft provide a venue to spend 10, 15, 20, 25 hours staring at a location of interest so you can watch where ISIS is coming from. You can identify where they’re moving," he said.
For now, the Pentagon says indications are that militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant still craves more territory and show no signs of backing down.