New US base in Iraq draws more ISIL fire
WASHINGTON – Reuters
AP photoA fledgling U.S. base in northern Iraq came under attack again on March 21 from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and even drew a threat from an Iran-backed Shi’ite militia, two days after a U.S. Marine there was killed in a rocket attack.
Firebase Bell, as the artillery outpost is called, is the first independent U.S. base of its kind in Iraq since the return of American forces to the country in 2014 and is the latest sign of deepening U.S. military involvement in the conflict.
Bell’s existence was meant to be kept secret until it was deemed operational, the U.S. military said, but ISIL appeared to learn of the U.S. presence before the American public did.
The Sunni militant group launched a March 19 attack with Katyusha rockets, killing Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin and injuring others in Cardin’s company-sized detachment of less than 200 troops.
Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, disclosed another attack on March 21, this time by a squad of ISIL fighters who got close enough to the base to stage a failed attack with small arms.
Warren acknowledged adjustments were being made to strengthen the defenses.
“We are continuing to improve our fighting position, so to speak, to ensure that we’ve got the best ability to protect ourselves,” Warren told a news briefing.
The base was also drawing attention from an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia, which said it would treat U.S. Marines deployed to the base as “forces of occupation” and would deal with them.
President Barack Obama has pledged to avoid a large-scale U.S. ground deployment in Iraq and to focus on enabling local forces. But the U.S. military has become increasingly involved on the ground, sending in U.S. special operations forces and, most recently, a detachment from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department on March 21 denied the Pentagon’s latest announcement of an additional deployment to Iraq to help efforts to destroy ISIL.
“Those Marines were already there ... they were already there in the appropriate advise and assist capacity,” spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing.
Asked many times to clarify whether those were “additional” Marines sent to protect U.S. military advisors in Iraq, Kirby repeatedly said that they were already there.
“There are no additional forces being sent to Iraq and no U.S. forces in Iraq - none, zero - that haven’t been approved and coordinated with the Iraqi government,” he stressed.
“These Marines we’re talking ... were already in Iraq and they were on a mission that was in keeping with the advice and the assist mission.”
Kirby’s comments came one day after the Pentagon announced it has assigned a detachment of U.S. Marines on the ground in Iraq to support the international coalition efforts against ISIL.