The commander of approximately 1,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division headed to Iraq said Friday his troops are not going to fight the Islamic State.
"We will not be conducting offensive ground combat operations," Col. Curtis Buzzard said in a phone interview Friday. "Anything we do will still be in an advise and assist role (with the Iraqi military). We're helping them plan and execute these operations."
Buzzard will lead the paratroopers from the 82nd's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. They will deploy in the next few weeks for a nine-month deployment. Their mission is to train and advise the Iraqi military as it prepares for a summer offensive to retake Mosul.
President Barack Obama said U.S. combat troops would not be used in Iraq in the past, but told Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command overseeing the fight in Iraq and Syria, told The Wall Street Journal Thursday no decision have been made on sending U.S. advisers forward with Iraqi divisions.
"I am going to do what it takes to be successful, and it may very well turn out…that we may need to ask to have our advisers accompany the troops that are moving on Mosul," he said in a Wall Street Journal interview.
U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal Thursday two Iraqi divisions would be part of the offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city in the spring after completing four to six weeks of training. Buzzard's men will be part of the training program. As he prepares to leave Fort Bragg, NC, his biggest concern is protecting his trainers, who will be based at Iraqi bases.
"Over nine months, you have to make sure you don't get complacent," Buzzard said. "We've seen incidents in Afghanistan over the last couple of years from an insider threat standpoint."
There have been no inside attacks to date. The training program is off to a rocky start, according to recent news reports. There is a shortage of ammunition, forcing Iraqi soldier to yell "bang bang" to simulate firing and classes on "the will to fight' are being taught after Iraqi fighters deserted their positions, according to a Washington Post report.
Buzzard said his men are focused on training the Iraqi leadership. He is bringing his most senior leaders, who will work closely with their counterparts as the offensive is planned.
"We're looking forward to building relationships with our partners," Buzzard said. "The feedback I'm getting so far is that it is very well received and it is having a significant impact at least on the planning stage of the counter offensive right now."
On Thursday, Kurdish forces cut a key supply line to Mosul and pushed Islamic State fighters out of parts of northern Iraq, according to media reports. But US officials told The Wall Street Journal Thursday that this summer's fight for Mosul will be difficult with booby-trapped houses and roadside bombs expected. Buzzard said he has been focused on the deployment and not on the current intelligence reports, but he said air power and ground forces have degraded the Islamic state.
"We're still in the condition setting stage for the counter-offensive," Buzzard said. "The Iraqi army still has to build up some combat power and decide which forces they are going to use and ensure they are properly trained and equipped, but I think they will be fully capable of executing the mission."
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