American forces have begun advising Iraqi troops in the western Anbar province, the top U.S. general told Reuters, in a faster-than-expected expansion of an operation that is central to its campaign against Islamic State.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a small group of advisers had already established themselves in a preliminary fashion at Ain al-Asad air base in the province, much of which is controlled by the militant Islamist group.
They would also eventually start training the Iraqi army's seventh division, which suffered major setbacks during the Islamic State's advances across the country this summer.
“We have a train, advise and assist team in al-Asad air base,” Dempsey said in an interview conducted on Saturday. “There's enough there that are already working with the seventh division to help them plan and help them understand the threat, to advise them on how to consolidate their forces.”
President Barack Obama's administration announced on Nov. 7 it would send up to 1,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, widening its advising mission and initiating training of Baghdad's forces. At the time, officials suggested the expansion would take weeks to get underway.
The seventh division's ability and willingness to engage Sunni militant forces in Anbar could be vital to any sustained offensive to reverse Islamic State fighters' gains. The jihadist group took Anbar's two main cities, Falluja and Ramadi, several months before it overran much of the rest of the country, often facing little resistance from Iraqi government forces.
An aide to Dempsey said the U.S. troops, who numbered just under 50, were also already helping the seventh division as Iraq starts to build ties with Sunni Muslim tribes in the region.
The goal is to create a bridging force of thousands of Sunni tribesmen before Iraq's Shi'ite-led government creates a “National Guard,” decentralizing power from Baghdad.
The official said the U.S. training operation at al-Asad was expected to get underway this year.
Bombings in Baghdad
A car bomb exploded on the perimeter of Baghdad's heavily guarded international airport complex on Sunday, wounding five people, security sources said.
The blast occurred at a security checkpoint close to a parking lot where passengers are searched before boarding airport taxis, three sources said. The checkpoint is several kilometers from the terminal building.
Twitter accounts that support the Islamic State group distributed messages saying the group claimed responsibility for the attack by what they described as “the first” suicide bomber “to receive the Americans” exiting from the airport. However, security and police sources gave no indication that any American had been targeted.
An airport official said authorities tightened security while air traffic was normal.
Around two hours later, a roadside bomb exploded in a commercial area of Baghdad about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the airport. Three people were killed and seven wounded, said security sources and medics.
Kobani fighting calms
The besieged Syrian border town of Kobani was calm early Sunday, with occasional plumes of white smoke seen rising from its buildings.
Kobani has become a symbolic test of the U.S.-led coalition's ability to halt the advance of Islamic State fighters, which has poured weapons and fighters into its assault of the town that has lasted almost two months.
U.S.-led airstrikes hit 10 units of Islamic State fighters in Syria in recent days, as well as militants with the al Qaida-linked Khorasan Group, U.S. Central Command said in a statement Friday.
Weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes have failed to break the militants stranglehold, and Kurds are hoping the arrival of the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces, welcomed by Washington, will turn the tide.
The peshmerga have helped forces in Kobani take control of some villages around it, but have not yet altered the lines of control inside the town.