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The effort has been underway since late last year

The undertaking stops short of a formalized military presence on the ground

The effort stops short of a formalized military presence on the ground

Washington CNN  — 

The Pentagon is slightly expanding its efforts to counter ISIS activity in Libya, sending in small teams of troops to try to establish relationships with groups that may be able to form a new nationwide government, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the operation.

But the effort stops short of a formalized military presence on the ground, the official said.

The effort has been underway since late last year. In December, U.S. troops were photographed inside Libya but left after local militias objected. At that time, U.S. officials said it was not a regular task for U.S. troops to go to Libya.

Now, that appears to have changed. The official noted teams do travel to both western and eastern Libya but insisted, “they have not established a permanent presence or anything like an outpost.”

They are approaching militias and other groups around Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. The hope is that somehow groups like the declared Libyan House of Representatives and Government of National Accord, along with what is left of a military element plus powerful militias, can somehow band together to form a unity government.

For now, the U.S. troops, which the Pentagon is calling “contact teams,” are traveling into key areas and meeting with leaders from all groups to see about possible cooperation and eventually what assistance the U.S. could provide if a government can be formed.

The Pentagon recently revealed a military “concept of operations” had been approved that would spell out what the Pentagon might do in the months ahead.

A current priority is “to further develop the intelligence that we would need to support operations in Libya,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Congress.

At the same time, a high U.S. military priority is increasing the surveillance over Libya with manned aircraft and drones to locate and target potential ISIS sites, the official said.

The current estimate is there are as many as 6,000 ISIS operatives inside Libya. The U.S. has already conducted two airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya and more strikes are expected as targets are identified, the official said.