The Pentagon May Send U.S. Troops to Take Back One of ISIS’s Biggest Strongholds

Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to help the Iraqi army “finish the job.”

Before it was an ISIS stronghold, the city of Ramadi was one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Now, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is considering sending American helicopters and troops back there to help Iraqi military forces retake the city from the Islamic State.

“The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers if circumstances dictate and if requested by Prime Minister [Hader al-] Abadi,” Carter told lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Ramadi has been engulfed in heavy fighting since the Iraqi military launched a major push into the city earlier this week. Iraq’s Joint Military Command reported on Tuesday that dozens of ISIS fighters were killed and 60% of the city had been retaken with the aid of U.S. airstrikes. But there’s still much work to be done, as insurgents in Ramadi are estimated to number between 600 and 1,000. 

Ramadi is located roughly 70 miles west of Baghdad in Anbar province, where U.S. Marines were heavily concentrated during the initial occupation of the country. Following the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, Ramadi became a chief al-Qaeda stronghold, and one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the war. It was there, in 2006, that “American Sniper: Chris Kyle, aka the “Devil of Ramadi”, solidified his reputation as the deadliest sniper in American history.

Many American and Iraqi lives were lost in the protracted battle to wrest the city from al-Qaeda control. But in May of this year, Ramadi fell again, this time to ISIS militants who captured the city with relative ease after Iraqi forces stationed there withdrew en masse. The retaking of Ramadi is now considered crucial to the U.S.-led campaign to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. 

There are currently hundreds of troops stationed in Anbar, but so far they’ve been mostly confined to an air base. It’s unclear how their role will change based on Carter’s announcement. It is clear, though, that the Pentagon and the White House are now leaning toward a more direct approach as they continue to ramp up ground operations to defeat the Islamic State.