WASHINGTON • The United States has said it will deploy a new force of special operations troops in Iraq to conduct raids against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) there and in neighbouring Syria.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said on Tuesday that the deployment of the new "specialised expeditionary targeting force" was being carried out in coordination with Iraq's government and would aid its security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
"These special operators will, over time, be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders," Mr Carter told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, using another acronym for the militant group. "This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria," he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office issued a statement saying it welcomed foreign assistance, but it would need to approve any deployment of special operations forces in Iraq - a point that Mr Carter also acknowledged.
Mr Abadi reiterated that foreign ground troops were not needed in Iraq, although it was unclear whether Baghdad viewed these special operations forces in that role.
Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim groups pledged to fight any such deployment of US forces in the country. A spokesman for Kata'ib Hizbollah, one of the main Shi'ite militant groups, said that any such US force would become a "primary target for our group". "We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting," he said.
The government of Iraq was briefed in advance of Mr Carter's announcement, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at Nato. "We will continue to work very, very closely with our Iraqi partners on exactly who would be deployed, where they would be deployed, what kinds of missions people would undertake, how they would support Iraqi efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL," Mr Kerry said.
He said the US had asked other members of the 28-nation Western security alliance to supply things such as police training, ammunition and other items to Syria's neighbours.
"There are various ways in which countries can contribute. They don't necessarily have to be troops (engaged in) kinetic action," Mr Kerry said. Nations could help in Syria with medical teams and intelligence gathering, he added.
While the US force is expected to number only about 200, its creation marks the latest stepping up of US military pressure on ISIS while also exposing American forces to greater risk, something US President Barack Obama has done only sparingly.
The force is separate from a previously announced deployment of up to 50 US special operations troops in Syria to coordinate with US-backed rebels, who have been fighting in a civil war since 2011.
Mr Obama is under pressure to accelerate a US-led coalition's efforts to combat the ISIS, in particular after the Nov 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. He has been reluctant to commit large numbers of US ground troops, instead deploying limited numbers of advisers and elite forces.
Mr Fred Hof, formerly a top State Department adviser on Syria, said the planned deployment of special forces to Iraq to conduct raids and gather intelligence represented a shift by Mr Obama.
Mr Obama "is edging as closely as he can to try to fill this gap without violating in a technical sense his own 'boots on the ground' dictum," Mr Hof said, referring to Mr Obama's frequent pledges not to return to US troops to a large-scale ground war. That pledge, he said, does not appear to apply to US special operations forces.