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US Marines deploy to northern Iraq to provide protection

Posted at 11:17 AM, Mar 21, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. has set up a small Marine artillery outpost in northern Iraq to protect a nearby Iraqi military base where U.S. advisers are helping Iraqi combat troops plan and prepare for a counteroffensive in Mosul, a U.S. spokesman said Monday.

"It is a fire base," Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon.

It is the first such base established by the U.S. since it returned forces to Iraq in 2014 in response to the Islamic State's takeover of Mosul and other areas of northern and western Iraq, Warren said. He said it should not be considered a combat outpost because it is located behind the front lines and is not initiating combat with the Islamic State.

"Their primary mission is to protect, obviously, Americans," Warren said, referring to the U.S. advisers in that area. He declined to say how many U.S. advisers are working with the Iraqis there but said it is fewer than 100.

On Monday, a small number of Islamic State fighters got close enough to the Marines' outpost, dubbed Fire Base Bell, to target them with small arms, Warren said. He said no U.S. personnel were wounded in that attack; two IS fighters were killed.

He said the Marines' mission is defensive and is considered part of the advise-and-assist mission the U.S. military is undertaking on an Iraqi military base located near Makhmour, between the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Iraqis are preparing ground combat forces for an eventual mission to recapture Mosul. Warren said the Marines, who are members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, began arriving at the fire base about two weeks ago.

The existence of the Marine base was announced Sunday, one day after a member of the unit, Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, of Temecula, California, was killed by rocket fire there. Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said Saturday that several other Marines were wounded in the attack. Warren said Monday that some of the wounded were quickly returned to duty and an undisclosed number of others were evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

Warren said that for security reasons he could not disclose the exact number of Marines at the fire base but that it was a "company," which normally numbers between 100 and 200 troops.