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United States to Send Military Advisers to Iraq

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Washington – President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the United States will deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help its beleaguered security forces fend off Sunni militants, edging the United States back into a conflict that Obama thought he had left behind.

Obama also said the United States was gathering intelligence on the positions of militant fighters to identify targets and added, “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it.”

The president said little about the role of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader whose policies have fueled the deepening sectarian tensions with Sunni Arab minority. U.S. officials have privately concluded that al-Maliki cannot head a national unity government.

“It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said, when asked about al-Maliki. But, he said “right now, there’s too much suspicion, there’s too much mistrust.”

He did, however, sharply criticize the policies of the Iraqi government, which he said had alienated the Sunni minority – a message that he said the United States had delivered to al-Maliki publicly and privately.

“The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak,” Obama said. “Right now they can make a series of decisions. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, right now is a moment where the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance.”

Obama said he still believed that the solution to Iraq’s strife was political, not military. He said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East this weekend to build support among Iraq’s Arab neighbors for a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad.

The president also suggested that there was a constructive role for Iran, Iraq’s Shiite neighbor, to play in the crisis if, he said, “it is sending the same message to the Iraqi government that we are sending.” But he warned that Iran would be a destructive force if it supplied “armed forces on behalf of the Shia.”

Obama emphasized again that he would not send combat troops to Iraq, but he said the United States would help the Iraqis “take the fight” to the militants, who he said pose a threat to Iraq’s stability and to U.S. interests because Iraq could become a sanctuary for terrorists who could strike the United States or its allies.

“It is in our national security interest not to see an all-out civil war in Iraq,” Obama said to reporters in the White House briefing room, after a meeting of his national security council.

The president said the additional military advisers would staff two joint operations centers, in Baghdad and outside, in which the United States and Iraqi forces would share intelligence and planning.

Obama also said the United States would supply Iraqi forces with technology and equipment, drawing on the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund that he announced in a foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The U.S. military advisers will be based not only in Baghdad but in northern Iraq, where the militants have made their greatest advances. And they will help not only with intelligence-gathering, but with the planning of military operations against the militants.

Still, Obama invoked the painful legacy of the Iraq war in pledging to approach the crisis with caution and restraint.

“Recent days have reminded us of the deep scars from our war in Iraq,” he said, adding that the United States needed to “ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action.”

Obama also said he was reluctant to get drawn deeper into the civil war in neighboring Syria, where many of the fighters from the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, originated. He cited the difficulties in deciding whether to arm members of the opposition.

“If you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime,” he said, “how quickly can you get them trained?”

The statement came a day after he consulted with congressional leaders at the White House, and after Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi leaders.

Among those participating in Thursday’s national security meeting with Obama, according to the White House, were Biden; Secretary of State John Kerry; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff; Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser; Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations; and W. Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel.

Others in the meeting were James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence; John O. Brennan, the director of the CIA; Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Lisa O. Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser; Antony J. Blinken and Benjamin J. Rhodes, both deputy national security advisers; and Jake Sullivan, the vice president’s national security adviser.

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