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480 U.S. troops now in Baghdad as officials move to secure access to airport

The United States has deployed 300 more troops to Baghdad in the last two days, with some of them assigned to secure Baghdad’s international airport, the Obama administration announced Monday.

One senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told McClatchy that the troops were moved to Baghdad after American officials determined that Islamist fighters had consolidated their grip on the western outskirts of the capital in recent days. The movement “convinced us this would be prudent,” the official said.

Baghdad’s airport would be critical to any evacuation of Americans from the capital, where hundreds remain assigned to the U.S. Embassy, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world.

The troops arrived Sunday and Monday, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. Of the 300 who arrived in Baghdad, 100 had been assigned to Iraq June 16 but had remained in Kuwait until it was certain they would be needed.

The other 200, according to a letter President Barack Obama sent to Congress Monday, were “deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary.” The force “is equipped for combat,” the letter said, and “will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”

With the additional 300 troops, the United States now has 480 personnel operating in Baghdad. The president deployed the first 180 to Baghdad two weeks ago after forces from the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist group seeking to create an Islamic caliphate, took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city June 10, then swept south, capturing a series of other Sunni-dominated cities. The group, known previously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, announced Sunday that it had changed its name to reflect what it says was the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria.

Kirby said in his statement that the new U.S. deployment included helicopters and drones that “will bolster airfield and travel route security.”

The addition of such capabilities underscores the rapid evolution of the security situation in Baghdad. The first 180 troops sent into Baghdad were assigned primarily to set up a Joint Operations Center to advise the Iraqis on how to counter the Islamists’ advance and to collect intelligence on the security threat to the government.

But Monday’s announcement suggested that the new troops and the air craft that accompany them have the more specific task of securing the airport and the roads to it.

Baghdad International Airport sits in the northwest section of the city about 10 miles from the city center. It butts up against areas that are now under the control of the Islamic State.

The U.S. Embassy employs about 5,300 people. Hundreds of those were evacuated June 15, either to Amman, Jordan, or to two Iraqi cities considered safer than Baghdad _ Basra in the south or Irbil in the north. But hundreds more remain in Baghdad, and the embassy remains open.

The arrival of more U.S. troops came one day after the Iraqi air force announced that Russia had sent five SU-25 jet fighters to Iraq to help Iraq’s all but non-existent air force launch counter attacks against the Islamists and would soon send another seven. Some of those jets would likely take off from Baghdad International Airport.

The United States has agreed to sell Iraq 36 F-16 fighter jets, but the first of those are not expected to arrive until fall. The first of that order was officially delivered June 5, but remains in Fort Worth, said Mark D. Johnson, a spokesman for the jet’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. He said the Pentagon has provided no guidance on when the plane would be ferried to Iraq.

Steve Kaskovich of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.