The US will accelerate efforts to train Iraqi forces battling Islamic State (IS) militants after the jihadist group beheaded an American aid worker in what President Barack Obama described as an "act of pure evil."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on Sunday that the US mission to train Iraqi troops was already being sped up using personnel currently in Iraq, even while funding was sought for further expansion. Speaking at the military's National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, Hagel said that special ops forces had already been moved to IS-dominated Anbar province.
An aide to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters that a group of just under 50 American advisers were already helping the Iraqi army's seventh division at Ain al-Asad air base.
There are currently 1,400 American personnel in Iraq. However they have only operated in an advisory capacity and are located in more stable parts of the country. Last week President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops — also to act in an advisory role — by the beginning of 2015.
US efforts to combat IS have intensified since it began murdering Western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The latest victim, American aid worker Peter Kassig, 26 — who took the first name Abdul-Rahman after converting to Islam in captivity — was shown beheaded in an IS video released on Sunday. The gory footage also showed the mass beheading of 18 Syrian prisoners and, unlike previous execution videos, a number of IS militants with their faces uncovered.
After US officials confirmed the authenticity of the video, Obama said in an official statement that Kassig "was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity" and that IS "revels in the slaughter of innocents, including Muslims, and is bent only on sowing death and destruction." He also offered his condolences to Kassig's family.
Kassig, a certified EMT and former US army ranger was snatched by IS on October 1 while delivering aid with the Special Emergency Response and Assistance (SERA), a humanitarian organization he founded to deliver food and medical supplies in Syria.
Peter's parents Ed and Paula Kassig released a statement on Sunday following following the confirmation of his death. "We are heartbroken to learn that our son, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, has lost his life as a result of his love for the Syrian people and his desire to ease their suffering," it read. "Our heart also goes out to the families of the Syrians who lost their lives, along with our son."
"We are incredibly proud of our son for living his life according to his humanitarian calling. We will work every day to keep his legacy alive as best we can.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Monday that there was a "strong possibility" that one of the IS militants seen with an uncovered face in the video was a French citizen. Analysis by the country's intelligence services, he said, had concluded that it was likely to be Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old originally from Normandy who traveled to Syria in August 2013.
Meanwhile, the UK's former army chief said that British ground troops may be required to fight in Iraq and Syria to defeat IS. Gen. Richard Dannatt told Sky News that concerted efforts must be taken to eliminate the group — including, if airstrikes did not prove sufficient, through a ground offensive. "Of course it means attacking ISIL [IS] from the air, it means attacking them from the air over Iraq and Syria — and our government has got to think about that one very closely," he said.
Dannatt added that training and improving local forces to aggressively target IS should also be a priority, but that if that failed, then the UK "might have to think the unthinkable and possibly engage Western forces on the ground." He added that this would prove politically unpopular and that there was little appetite for such action, however.
Dempsey has also said that US troops could be required to take part in ground operations. He told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that American forces might need to go into battle alongside Iraqi troops during large complex operations to regain territory seized by IS, such as the country's second city of Mosul or the area around the Iraqi border with Syria.
However on Sunday he ruled out the use of a "full invasion force." "They [Iraq] are a sovereign nation," he said. "It is their country. They have to do this themselves."
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