Obama to send 300 trops to act as 'advisers' in Iraq
WASHINGTON — President Obama announced on Thursday that he is sending up to 300 troops to Iraq to help Iraqi military forces deal with an onslaught by radical Islamist fighters inspired by al-Qaida.
In addressing the Iraq situation, Obama insisted he would not send combat troops back to Iraq. He said the contingent he is sending would operate as “advisers.”
He stopped short of openly calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, but he stressed that Iraq needs leadership that is more accommodating toward the country's ethnic and religious minorities.
“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, the region and American interests as well,” Obama said.
He said that “we've positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region” and that increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts are helping to develop “more information about potential targets” associated with militants of the radical Sunni Muslim group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Obama added that “going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it” — an apparent reference to the prospect of airstrikes. But he emphasized that “the United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another.”
He said it was not up to the United States to choose Iraq's leaders, but he made it clear that the Maliki government has been unable to bridge “deep divisions” among Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The Obama administration is seeking alternatives to Maliki as Iraqis move to form a government from recent parliamentary elections, according to officials.
“Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq's future,” Obama said. “Now, it's not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders. 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.”
Now that the results of Iraq's recent elections have been certified, “a new parliament should convene as soon as possible,” Obama said, adding: “The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
“We do not have the ability to solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops,” Obama said.
In response to a question about the role of neighboring Iran, which is ruled by Shiite clerics, Obama said: “Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we are sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it is inclusive. ... If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation.”
Obama's decision immediately came under criticism from congressional Republicans.
“The plan that the president announced today in response to the rapid terrorist expansion in Iraq underestimates the seriousness of the threat,” Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement. “The steps he announced are needed, but fall short of what is required to stop this al-Qaida offshoot from gaining more power, which must include drone strikes.”
Royce chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Although Obama last week ruled out “sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” reports emerged on Thursday that the Pentagon had offered him a plan under which up to 100 U.S. Special Operations forces — likely Army Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs — would be sent to Iraq to advise its military and collect intelligence.
CNN reported that teams would be placed througout Iraq in the headquarters of Iraqi military brigades and tasked with gathering intelligence on ISIS forces, such as their location, numbers and weaponry. Such information would be needed if Obama decided to go ahead with airstrikes on ISIS forces.