WASHINGTON • United States Special Operations forces are providing direct, on-the-ground support for the first time to fighters battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Libya, US and Libyan officials said, coordinating American air strikes and providing intelligence to oust the group from a militant stronghold.
The positioning of a small number of elite US personnel in the coastal city of Sirte deepens the involvement of Western nations against the ISIS' most powerful affiliate.
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a mission that has not been announced publicly, said US troops were working out of a joint operations centre on the city's outskirts and that their role was limited to supporting forces loyal to the country's fragile unity government.
Ms Robyn Mack, a spokesman for US Africa Command, said small numbers of US military personnel would continue to go in and out of Libya to exchange information with local forces, but she declined to provide details.
An expanded on-the-ground role for Western nations follows the Obama administration's decision earlier this month to begin regular air strikes on ISIS positions in Sirte, the group's de facto capital in North Africa. Since the strikes began about a week ago, US planes have struck almost 30 militant targets.
ONLY AIR COVER
We do not need foreign troops on Libyan soil. Our men can manage alone once they have cover from the air. I asked only for US air strikes which must be very precise and limited in time and geographical scope, always carried out in coordination with us
MR FAYEZ AL-SARRAJ, head of Libya's Government of National Accord, on needing only air cover from the US.
The increased US air campaign underscores the stakes in a battle against a group that has vowed to strike the West and has attracted recruits from across Africa and the Middle East. Since they appeared in Libya in 2014, fighters allied with ISIS have displayed tactics similar to their parent group in Syria and Iraq: beheading non-Muslims, attacking local security forces and facilities associated with Westerners, and forcing locals to abide by their harsh interpretation of Islam.
The new American operation in Sirte is the culmination of an extended, low-visibility mission in Libya by US special operators, who established small outposts in recent months as part of an effort to build ties with friendly forces and increase American understanding of the complexities of political and militia factions.
The limited nature and size of US operations around Sirte reflect the delicate balancing act that President Barack Obama's administration must achieve as it seeks to help allied local forces succeed while not undermining the country's fragile unity government.
Last month, Libyans protested against France's military footprint in eastern Libya after the death of French troops revealed their presence there. Even in recent days, Libyan militia commanders have declared that there were no Western boots on the ground and that this was their fight alone.
Mr Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the US mission in Sirte differed from the French presence in the eastern city of Benghazi, mainly because none of Libya's feuding political factions would object to attempts to defeat ISIS. "As long as they keep this low profile... the risks both for the US and for the Libyan government are quite low."
Underscoring the sensitivities, the head of Libya's Government of National Accord said yesterday the country did not need foreign troops on the ground in the fight against ISIS. "We do not need foreign troops on Libyan soil," Mr Fayez al-Sarraj said in an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.
"Our men can manage alone once they have cover from the air. I asked only for US air strikes which must be very precise and limited in time and geographical scope, always carried out in coordination with us," he said.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE