Bt W.J. Hennigan / LATimes.com
The Pentagon has shifted more than 100 U.S. soldiers from a desert camp near the Egypt-Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula after a barrage of attacks by militants linked to Islamic State.
The U.S. troops, part of a little-known peacekeeping force that helps maintain the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, were transferred about 300 miles south to a more secure area.
The move comes as the Obama administration is considering whether to scale back the 700 U.S. troops in the Sinai and instead use remote sensors, cameras, and other technology to monitor the border.
Sinai Province, a militant group that last year declared allegiance to Islamic State, has carried out multiple attacks on military outposts in the northern Sinai. Its fighters have killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers, including eight this month when militants fired a rocket at their armored vehicle.
The extremist group claimed responsibility after a bomb exploded aboard a Russian-chartered passenger jet over the Sinai on Oct. 31 and killed all 224 passengers and crew. In July, the group hit an Egyptian frigate in the Mediterranean Sea with a shoulder-fired missile.
The Multinational Force of Observers, or MFO, has 1,680 troops from a dozen countries. The Americans, who live behind blast walls and travel in armored vehicles, have increasingly found themselves at risk in the insurgency.
Four were injured when their convoy hit two roadside bombs in September. Several weeks earlier, an American soldier was shot in the arm when gunmen targeted the camp, near the northern Sinai village of Al-Joura.
The Pentagon responded last summer by sending 75 more troops plus counter-mortar radars and new communication equipment.
As peacekeepers, the U.S. troops aren’t authorized to fire at the militants — only the Egyptians are allowed do that.
The recent attacks were among the topics that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed Saturday in a closed-door meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi on Saturday in Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb.
Any major change in the peacekeeping force must be approved by all signatories to the accord, which followed the wars between Egypt and Israel and in 1967 and 1973.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter formally notified Israel and Egypt this month that the U.S. is reviewing its role in the force. U.S. defense officials say the review involves reducing the number of U.S. troops, not a full withdrawal.
Many of the troops, including staff headquarters, already have moved from El Gorah in the northern Sinai to a smaller installation near Sharm el Sheik on the southern tip of the peninsula.
“The Pentagon has valid concerns about troop safety,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the U.S. tinkering with its force numbers, even if slightly, can give the appearance that it is second-guessing the mission, which is worrisome for the Egyptian government and provides a propaganda tool” for Islamic State.
The U.S. government provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. It has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the 1979 peace accord with Israel.
The Obama administration briefly suspended military aid in 2013 to push Sisi, who had seized power in a military coup, to improve his government’s human rights record.
Despite continued U.S. criticism over Sisi’s jailing of political opponents and activists, Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited here Wednesday to show support for Egypt’s government.
“We talked about ways in which we can hopefully resolve some of the differences and questions that have arisen about the internal politics and choices for the people of Egypt,” Kerry said after talking with Sisi.
Kerry did not detail the “differences,” but added that Egypt is “critical to the peace and security” of the region.