WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Thursday said he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help quell the rising insurgency in the crumbling state. He called on Iraqi leaders to govern with a more “inclusive agenda” to ensure the country does not descend into civil war.
Though not specifically mentioning airstrikes, an option the U.S. has been considering, Obama said he was leaving open the possibility of “targeted” military action in the future. He said the U.S. also would increase its intelligence efforts in Iraq and was creating joint operations centers with Iraqis.
When coupled with previously announced steps, Obama’s actions could put about 600 additional U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq. The 300 military advisers he announced Thursday would join up to 275 being positioned in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests.
But he was adamant that U.S. troops would not be returning to combat.
“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”
An F-18 Hornet prepares for operations aboard the USS George H. W. Bush in The Gulf. | AFP Photo Handout-US Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Maggie Keith
He called this a moment when “the state of Iraq hangs in the balance” and cautioned that “there’s not going to be a simple military solution.”
He stopped short of calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders.” But he said those leaders “must rise above their differences and come together” for the sake of their nation.
“Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis,” he said.
Obama spoke after meeting with his national security team to discuss military options and consider how strongly to press al-Maliki to undertake changes and make his government more inclusive. Top U.S. officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns about al-Maliki may offer the best opportunity to stave off another deadly round of sectarian fighting of the kind that engulfed Iraq less than a decade ago.
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq soon to press its government to share more power.
U.S. officials have been concerned that pushing al-Maliki too hard might stiffen his resolve to stay in office and drive him closer to Iran, which is seeking to keep the Shiite leader in power. However the administration does want to see evidence of a leadership transition plan being put in place in Iraq.
Obama said Iran can play a constructive role if it sends a message that Iraq’s government must be inclusive and respect the interests of Sunnis and Kurds. But he said if Iran comes into the conflict solely as an armed force backing the Shiite-led government, its involvement would probably worsen the situation.
Newly-recruited Iraqi volunteers, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, take part in training in Baghdad. | Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images
Obama said the U.S. military advisers’ role would be to “assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces.”
According to U.S. officials, the 300 would largely be Green Berets, deployed in teams embedded with Iraqi security forces.
It will start with a few teams initially. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deployment publicly.
Officials also said manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day on intelligence collection missions. If the U.S. were to proceed with airstrikes, officials did not rule out the prospect of hitting targets in Syria, where the militant group pressing through Iraq also has deep ties.
Going forward, Obama said, the U.S. will be “developing more information about potential targets” and could take “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” He said he would consult with members of Congress and leaders in Iraq and the region before doing so.
The president offered war-weary Americans a rationale for ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq, saying the U.S. doesn’t want the region to become a haven for extremist jihadists “who could use that as a base of operations for planning and targeting ourselves, our personnel overseas and eventually the homeland.”
The U.S. withdrew the last American troops from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. The withdrawal came after Washington and Baghdad were unable to reach an agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence.
But faced with a growing Sunni insurgency, Iraq’s government has asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes to contain a militant group that seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country’s military melted away.
Obama’s decision-making on airstrikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.