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Hundreds more American soldiers will soon head to Iraq. Their mission? To train that country's army in its fight against the so-called Islamic State. Eventually up to 3,000 American troops could end up operating out of a half-dozen training bases in Iraq. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the idea is to have Iraqi forces ready for combat within the next few months.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Nearly every day, U.S.-led airstrikes hammer the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, and usually the same areas north and west of Baghdad. The target list this week included a Islamic State fighting unit, a suspected car bomb, an artillery system. Add that to the list of more than 3,200 targets in both Iraq and Syria since the summer. Military officials tell NPR that ground operations to win back Iraqi territory from the Islamic State will likely begin in the spring. And they say some American soldiers or Marines, now focused solely on training, will be needed close to the front lines. Troops like experienced operators who use radios or laser pointers to call in air strikes.
JIM DUBIK: We're going to have to have at least some form of ground observers that can direct that fire.
BOWMAN: That's retired Lieutenant General Jim Dubik. He oversaw training for the Iraqi Army back in 2007. Dubik says U.S. personnel might work in rear headquarters on planning things like casualty evacuations and some Green Berets might be needed with the lead Iraqi units, advising on tactics and artillery strikes.
DUBIK: We could see some limited Special Operations Forces or other advisers at the rear headquarters and maybe some at the front headquarters. That's going to be a call that will be made later on.
BOWMAN: Later on. Right now, the call is for training. That's what Captain John Kivelin's doing at al-Asad Air Base just west of Baghdad. He watches the front end loaders fill up the massive reinforced sand bags called HESCO barriers to guard against rocket attacks. He spoke with NPR's Alice Fordham about deploying here before.
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CAPTAIN JOHN KIVELIN: Yeah, I've been in Iraq two other times. I was here in 2007, landed on this base. I was stationed down in Hit.
BOWMAN: Hit, a town just southeast of the base that's under control of Islamist fighters. Now Kivelin and several hundred Marines hope to turn all that around.
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KIVELIN: We're out here to train Iraqi soldiers in the Al Anbar province. Right now we're looking for Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems.
BOWMAN: And Iraq has plenty of problems. The Islamic State has taken over wide swaths of territory. Half the Iraqi Army has disintegrated. General Dubik says when the American military left Iraq in 2011, the entire army fell apart. Seasoned commanders who worked with the Americans were replaced with political supporters or those with the right amount of money.
DUBIK: Corruption became such that unit leadership positions were being bought and sold.
BOWMAN: Another problem, says, Dubik? Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki micromanaged the military.
DUBIK: He tried to command the forces down to battalion level from the prime minister's office.
BOWMAN: Now the Americans are working with a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Officials say he's focused on rebuilding the military and not micromanaging their operations. But Abadi complained this week that the Americans needed to do more to train Iraq's army. U.S. military officials say there that they're still in the process of selecting additional Marine and Army units for Iraq. Those units would focus on everything from basic marksmanship, to logistics and medical evacuation.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: It's a mixed bag. Some need more training than others.
BOWMAN: That's a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby.
KIRBY: This isn't about rebuilding the Iraqi Army. It's about trying to make more professional, make more capable, make more competent on the battlefield those units that are there and that are in the fight.
BOWMAN: In a matter of months, the U.S. military may be asking the White House to allow some of its troops to take part in that fight.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.