(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Friday he's "pleased" to see Iraqi security forces beginning their advance to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State terrorists, and he said they're doing it with the help of U.S. Marines on the ground.
Those Marines are providing artillery firepower for the advancing Iraqi troops.
Just five days ago, on Monday, a U.S. military spokesman announced that a 200-strong Marine detachment had been sent to the Makhmour area of Iraq to protect the Americans who are advising the Iraqi troops for the coming battle in Mosul.
The Marines were there for "force protection." It is not a "combat outpost," Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters on Monday. But he admitted that could change -- and apparently, it has.
On Friday, Carter said, "The U.S. Marines we've sent near Makhmour, where Staff Sgt. Carter gave his life, are now providing artillery fire at the request of the Iraqis to help support the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) advance against the enemy and protect their forces.
"So in both Syria and Iraq, we're seeing important steps to shape what will become crucial battles in the months to come."
Reporters at Friday's news conference asked both Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford about the apparent escalation, which the Pentagon calls "acceleration."
Dunford said the Marines are there to protect the American advisers. "They're also in a position to provide support to the Iraqi forces, and from my perspective, this is no different than aviation fire we've been delivering.
“This happens to be surface fire, or artillery, but certainly no different conceptually than the fire support we've been providing to the Iraqis all along.”
A reporter noted that this independent Marine detachment is not just defensive -- it’s also providing fire support for offensive operations against ISIS. “So why is this not the first footprint of a U.S. combat ground operation there in Iraq?”
"With regard to providing support to Iraqi offensive capability, to me, there's no inconsistency between what this artillery unit did and what our aviation support is doing every single day,” Dunford repeated.
“I don’t draw a distinction with it. In other words, we said that we're providing enabling support, to include combined arms capability to Iraqi forces as they conduct operations, which is exactly what this artillery unit was doing."
The reporter followed up: "It still has all indications that the U.S. military is directly involved in the ground operations with the Iraqi forces."
"In all honesty, I just cannot see this as being inconsistent with everything that we've been doing over the last several months," Dunford responded.
"And what we'll be doing in coming months," Defense Secretary Carter interjected. This is our approach to eliminate ISIL from Mosul. The Iraqi security forces are the ones carrying out the assault, but we're helping them. That's been our approach, and we'll continue to do that.”
Dunford said the Marine unit is behind the "forward line of (Peshmerga) troops," so it’s "by no means out in front on its own."
Dunford also said he and Carter "both believe that there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in the coming weeks, but that decision hasn't been made." Such a decision would be up to President Obama, who has not been authorized by Congress to conduct this particular war in Iraq.
When President Obama removed the last U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011, he announced that the U.S. was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government.”
On Feb. 27, 2009, a little more than a month after his first inauguration, Obama gave a speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina that the White House entitled, “Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq.”
But in June 2014, Obama announced that he was going to send "a small number" of American military advisers -- up to 300 -- "to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward."
"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," he said at the time.
The number of American troops in Iraq now numbers around 3,800, and Special Operations Forces are conducting raids in Syria and Iraq.
And Obama is conducting his escalating war in Iraq and Syria without a current authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) from Congress, as the 1973 War Powers Act requires.
He says his authority derives from an authorization that Congress passed on September 18, 2001 that specifically says the president is authorized to use force against those who planned, authorized or committed aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.
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