Obama sends U.S. military advisers to Iraq as battle rages over refinery
President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was sending up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq but stressed the need for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis as government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country’s biggest refinery.
Speaking after a meeting with his national security team, Obama said he was prepared to take “targeted” military action later if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of airstrikes to fend off a militant insurgency. But he insisted that U.S. troops would not return to combat in Iraq.
Obama also delivered a stern message to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the need to take urgent steps to heal Iraq’s sectarian rift, something U.S. officials say the Shi’ite leader has failed to do and which an al Qaeda splinter group leading the Sunni revolt has exploited.
“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. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
Obama, who withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, said the United States would increase support for Iraq’s beleaguered security forces. But he stopped short of acceding to Baghdad’s request for the immediate use of U.S. air power against Islamist insurgents who have overrun northern Iraq.
The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.
Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him. Some U.S. officials believe there is a need for new Iraqi leadership but are mindful that Washington may not have enough clout to influence the situation, a former senior administration official said.
While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister when asked by a reporter whether he would do so.
Warning that Iraq’s fate “hangs in the balance,” Obama said: “Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together.”
The U.S. president also said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East starting this weekend for talks he hoped would stabilize the region. A U.S. official said: “Kerry is expected to go Iraq soon,” but did not give a date.
Obama’s decision to deploy military advisers and deepen U.S. re-enagagement in Iraq came after days of arduous deliberations by a president who won the White House in 2008 on a pledge to disentangle the United States from the long, unpopular war there.
He said that recent days had reminded Americans of the “deep scars” from its Iraq experience, which started with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and saw U.S. troops occupy the country for nine years.