(Reuters) - The United States is quietly expanding the number of intelligence officers in Iraq and holding urgent meetings in Washington and Baghdad to find ways to counter growing violence by Islamic militants, U.S. government sources said.
A high-level Pentagon team is now in Iraq to assess possible assistance for Iraqi forces in their fight against radical jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group reconstituted from an earlier incarnation of al Qaeda, said two current government officials and one former U.S. official familiar with the matter.
The powerful ISIL, which seeks to impose strict sharia law in the Sunni majority populated regions of Iraq, now boasts territorial influence stretching from Iraq's western Anbar province to northern Syria, operating in some areas close to Baghdad, say U.S. officials.
Senior U.S. policy officials, known as the "Deputies Committee," met in Washington this week to discuss possible responses to the deteriorating security outlook in Iraq, said a government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
The source did not know the outcome of the meeting.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment.
The meetings underscore how Iraq's instability is posing a new foreign policy challenge for President Barack Obama, who celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops more than two years ago. Despite the concern, officials said it remains unclear whether Obama will commit significant new resources to the conflict.
Four months after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared war on Sunni militants in Iraq's western Anbar province, the fighting has descended into brutal atrocities, often caught on video and in photographs by both militants and Iraqi soldiers.
Iraqi soldiers say they are bogged down in a slow, vicious fight with ISIL and other Sunni factions in the city of Ramadi and around nearby Falluja.
One former and two current U.S. security officials said the number of U.S. intelligence personnel in Baghdad had already begun to rise but that the numbers remained relatively small.
"It's more than before, but not really a lot," said one former official with knowledge of the matter.
Much of the pressure to do more is coming from the U.S. military, the former official said, but it is unclear if the White House wants to get more deeply involved.
After ending nearly nine years of war in Iraq, the United States has limited military options inside the country. About 100 U.S. military personnel remain, overseeing weapons sales and cooperation with Iraqi security forces.
The U.S. government has rushed nearly 100 Hellfire missiles, M4 rifles, surveillance drones and 14 million rounds of ammunition to the Iraqi military since January, U.S. officials said. The Obama administration has also started training Iraqi special forces in neighboring Jordan.
Before the U.S. military withdrew, it trained, equipped and conducted operations with Iraqi special forces.
Staff from the Pentagon's Central Command are working closely with the Iraqi military but have advised it against launching major operations due to concerns Iraqi forces are not prepared for such campaigns, the former U.S. official said.
In Anbar, militants have a major presence in Falluja, while in Ramadi there is a stalemate, with territory divided among Iraqi government forces, ISIL and other Sunni armed groups.
In testimony before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in February, Brett McGurk, the State Department's top official on Iraq, described how convoys of up to 100 trucks, mounted with heavy weapons and flying al Qaeda flags, moved into Ramadi and Falluja on New Year's Day.
Local forces in Ramadi subsequently succeeded in pushing militants back, but the situation in Falluja remained "far more serious," McGurk said.