WASHINGTON --- President Barack Obama today announced plans to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help the government in Baghdad combat a rapid advance by Sunni-led insurgents who have taken over towns and cities and routed Iraqi troops in the north and west of the country, a situation which the president said threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war.
“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people in the region and American interests as well,” Obama said during an appearance in the White House press room, saying the U.S. forces will help train, advise and support Iraqi security forces.
The president spoke after another in what have been a series of meetings with his national security team to review options on how to respond to Iraq’s request for military assistance in putting down rapid gains made by insurgents led by Syrian-based fighters known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, whose advance on Baghdad has threatened reprisals from Iraq’s Shiite majority and a return of full blown sectarian conflict.
“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said.
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Demspey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress further intelligence would be needed about the situation on the ground along with clear objectives in order for possible airstrikes or other military intervention to be effective.
Obama said joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq will be stood up to better share intelligence and coordinate planning with the Iraqis as they confront the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. These steps are in addition to surveillance flights the United States is already conducting along with the positioning of increased U.S. military assets in the region.
Obama again called on Iraq’s political leaders including Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rise above sectarian differences and develop a broad-based political plan for ending a crisis that he said cannot be resolved through military means.
“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “It is clear, though, that 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.”
To that end, Obama said the United States will launch a diplomatic initiative to work with Iraq’s leaders and countries in the region and dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East for talks with allies and partners.
During an exchange with reporters, Obama said his administration has told Maliki there “has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurds all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” and that “as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats.”
Obama said the rapid collapse of two divisions of the Iraqi military and the threat of sectarian conflict “have reminded us of the deep scars left by America’s war in Iraq” and the sacrifice made by nearly 4,500 Americans, as well as “the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action.”
But in announcing his decision to send military advisers to Iraq, the president said it is in the U.S. national security interests not to see “an all-out civil war inside Iraq.”
In addition, a senior U.S official said the terrorist group ISIS -- an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- if not confronted, would attempt to create a caliphate and expand its influence across a huge swath of territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, creating a safe haven for extremists groups that could eventually target the United States.