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US orders more troops to Iraq


US Army General Lloyd Austin meets Iraq's defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi in Baghdad. (AP)

US Army General Lloyd Austin meets Iraq's defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi in Baghdad. (AP)

US Army General Lloyd Austin meets Iraq's defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi in Baghdad. (AP)

Amid persistent setbacks in the fight against Islamic State, Barack Obama has turned his military's focus to the Sunni-Shiite divide, ordering hundreds of troops to Iraq to integrate Iraqi forces and lay the groundwork to retake Ramadi and other key cities.

The expanded military campaign will set up a new base in Anbar province to advise Iraqi forces on how to plan and organise operations and help them reach out to Sunni tribes and bring them into the battle.

It leaves out any move to send US forces closer to the frontline, either to call in air strikes or advise smaller battlefront units, underscoring the president's reluctance to plunge the military deeper into war.

Under the plan, up to 450 more US troops will deploy to Iraq in the next six to eight weeks and set up a fifth training site at al-Taqaddum, a desert air base that was a US military hub during the 2003-11 war.

The site will be dedicated to helping the Iraqi army integrate Sunni tribes into the fight, an element seen as a crucial to driving IS out of the Sunni-majority areas of western Iraq.

The expanded effort will also include expediting the delivery of US equipment and arms to Iraq, including directly to troops at al-Taqaddum, under the authority of the government in Baghdad

The US is insistent that the Americans will not have a combat role, but they may venture out of the base to help identify and recruit Sunni tribes. About a quarter of the new troops will be advisers and the remainder will handle security, logistics and other administrative tasks.

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Mr Obama this week lamented that the US lacks a "complete strategy" for defeating IS, and officials pointed to a glaring lack of recruits among Sunnis. The administration insisted that the plan is not a change in the US strategy, but instead said it addresses that Sunni recruitment failure.

The Sunni-Shiite divide has been at the heart of IS successes in Iraq. Officials blamed the Iraqi government for last year's collapse of the military in the face of the IS onslaught. Many Sunnis in the armed forces dropped their weapons and fled, unwilling to fight for the Shiite-led government.

Some local citizens in Sunni-majority areas still fear an invasion and reprisals from Iran-backed Shiite militia even more than domination by IS, and Iraqi leaders in the Shiite-led government have been slow to recruit Sunni tribesmen, fearing that the fighters, once armed, could turn against them.

New Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi has promised to address those concerns.

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