(CNSNews.com) - As President Obama sends another 450 Americans to advise, train and support Iraqi troops, "force protection" is a key consideration, White House officials told reporters on Wednesday.
"Of course, force protection is something that we look at first and foremost whenever we consider putting U.S. forces in a new location," Assistant Defense Secretary Elissa Slotkin told reporters at a news briefing.
"Of course, there is always a risk whenever we're in Iraq that we could be hit with indirect fire, as we have in the past, that we could be attacked. That's something we consider wherever we go in Iraq.
"But we felt like we could sufficiently mitigate the risk to make it worthwhile to go out there to perform this important mission."
"Yeah, that's exactly right," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes chimed in.
"I'd just say that -- and look, the president recognizes whenever there's a deployment like this to a place like Iraq, there's inherent risk, and we take that very seriously. The forces will not be in a combat role themselves, but clearly force protection has been a very principal concern of the president as he looks at these training facilities across Iraq, and so that's been a part of all the discussions we've had with these national security teams."
The additional Americans will establish a fifth base in Iraq. That base, Taqaddum, sits between Ramadi and Fallujah, both cities captured by Islamic State terrorists.
"And that will further our strategy to assist the Iraqis as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday.
Asked about "mission creep," Earnest said President Obama has been "very specific" about the U.S. mission is -- and is not. "These troops are not being deployed to Iraq to engage in ground combat operations," he said.
A reporter interjected: "But they're going to be in danger of--"
"There is absolutely -- and I would not -- there's no environment in which I would downplay the risk that these -- that these military service members will face in Iraq," Earnest responded.
"We've been direct about the fact that the security situation in Iraq is tenuous, you know, particularly in Anbar Province. That's why...a number of the troops that will be a part of this mission will actually be at Taqaddum Air Base to provide security for the military officials that are directly responsible for providing advice, assistance and training to Iraqi fighters."
A reporter asked White House officials if the Americans are going to Taqaddam to deter additional ISIS advances:
"In terms of serving as a deterrent effect, I -- I think certainly, the idea that the U.S. is closer to the actual combat role the Iraqis will be taking, that we're closer to the fight that they're -- We shortened the strings on support for those forces when it comes to providing overhead cover, all of those things -- I think certainly, if I were Daesh (ISIS/ISIL), I would be factoring into the equation," Slotkin responded.
"But it -- it wasn't our primary goal in thinking of -- of the site; it was getting to the Iraqis and helping them with the specific advice and operational planning that they really need to take the fight to Daesh."
Goal: Recruit more Sunni fighters
The addition of 450 troops brings the total number of Americans up to 3,550 across Iraq.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Obama, in consultation with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, decided that the additional advise-and-assist capacity was needed "to improve our efforts in Iraq."
"We also are seeking to more efficiently provide equipment and materiel to Iraqi security forces and those (Sunni tribal) fighters that are working in concert with Iraqi security forces."
Earnest said additional American advisers and materiel will help the Abadi government recruit Sunni tribal fighters into the fight led by Iraq's Shiite central government. "So in pursuit of that specific effort, the president and his team decided that expanding our training and advise-and-assist missions at Taqaddum Air Base was the right approach."
Earnest said President Obama and his team "are confident that for now, 450 troops -- additional military personnel -- are what is necessary to fulfill this expanded advise-and-assist-and-training mission to Taqaddum Air Base.
"But what is also true is the president's going to continue to push his national security team to continually evaluate the strategy, to take a close look at the tactics that are being -- being employed in Iraq and determine which ones have proven to be effective and ensure that they are being applied not just in those areas where we're making progress but also in those areas where we're making -- where we're sustaining some setbacks. And that's been true in many locations in Anbar."
Earnest said President Obama had discussed the possibility of expanding the U.S. presence in Iraq even before ISIL overran Ramadi last month. But, he added, "the specific request that was received from Prime Minister Abadi did not come until after the fall of Ramadi."
"And we are confident that these efforts will enhance the capacity of Iraqi security forces and those forces that are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government to addressing the situation in Anbar province and driving ISIL out of the province and ultimately out of Ramadi as well.
"We're also confident that that will eventually benefit the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul, too. So I guess the point is, we continue to be concerned about the situation in Anbar province. It's not unrelated to the concern that we have -- or about the priority that we've placed on ultimately driving ISIL out of Mosul as well."