(CNSNews.com) – Fewer than 200 U.S. Marines have set up an outpost in an area where Iraqi fighters, along with their U.S. advisers, are massing in preparation for a battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants.
“This is the first time we've established a spot that's only American,” Army Col. Steven Warren, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, told a news conference on Monday.
Warren said members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit set up the outpost about two weeks ago “to provide force protection” for the American troops who are advising the Iraqi ground fighters in their battle to oust ISIS from the country.
He said the Marine unit is "behind the forward line of troops," and it is not a "combat outpost."
The next big battle to oust ISIS from Iraq is expected to happen in Mosul, and a reporter asked Warren if the Marines’ mission goes beyond force protection: Will they provide firepower and “forward protection” for Iraqi forces as they begin to move on Mosul?
“Well, we try not to talk about future operations,” Warren responded. “This sort of telegraphs our punches and we don't want to do that. What I'll tell you is their mission now is to provide force protection. There is no forward movement of the Iraqi forces, so the answer doesn't yet exist.
“When the Iraqi forces being to move, then we'll talk about what our forces are doing associated with that. But for now, the Iraqi forces are generating combat power in the vicinity of Makhmur; the Iraqi forces have coalition advisers present with them; and this Marine forces is providing force protection for them.”
Another reporter asked Warren, “Is this not an escalation of U.S. military combat operations there in Iraq?”
“Well, I don't -- I don't know that escalation is the word that I would use," Warren responded. "I would say, you know, we've -- we've spoken all along, or at least for months, about accelerants. So placing advisers into Makhmur along with the (Iraqi) 15th Division, that's the accelerant.
“Bringing these force-protection Marines into position to protect those are just that, it's -- it's force protection and if -- if these -- if these troops end up conducting other operations, then we can -- we can address it then.”
Warren said the Marine detachment is located “a few hundred meters” away from the Iraqi fighters and their advisers. “And what – what they’re there to do is simply shoot back is somebody shoots at them or at the forces in Makhmur.
“So they won't kind of go off and conduct any type of mission on their own. They don't really have that capability anyways. They're just providing coverage, right? They're providing fire support coverage for the several thousand Iraqi soldiers and the several hundred advisers. I don't think it's several hundred, I think it's less than 100 advisers that are in Makhmur providing that advice.”
“[I]t looks like yes, you have force-protection assets, but you also have offensive capabilities and that you plan to use them,” another reporter told Warren.
“I'm not going to tell you you're wrong, but I'm also not going to telegraph our punches,” Warren said.
The military revealed the presence of the Marine outpost only after Staff Sergeant Louis F. Cardin of Temecula, California was killed on March 19 by ISIS rocket fire at the outpost.
“We were keeping it to ourselves until such time as the Marines arrived there, they had become fully operational and were ready to fight,” Warren explained.
"We make these decisions not to hide information, but to protect troops. So when we decide to hold a piece of information for a couple extra days, it's -- it's for one simple reason, and that's so that we can protect these forces as they are at their most vulnerable, which is when they're moving.”
Warren called it “tragic and unfortunate" that Sergeant Carter was killed before the military could announce the establishment of outpost. "But that's all it is, is tragic and unfortunate,” he added.
Warren also said that Carter and his fellow Marines “were targeted specifically,” and “we have to expect that there will be attacks.”