U.S. to send 300 troops to Iraq, but hold off on air strikes
WASHINGTON - President Obama authorized additional military assistance for Iraq's fight against advancing Islamist militants Thursday, but made clear that he will continue to hold back more substantive support, including U.S. air strikes, until he sees a direct threat to U.S. personnel or a more inclusive and capable Iraqi government.
Obama said he would send up to 300 additional Special Operations troops to better assess the situation on the ground, where forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have moved ever nearer to Baghdad, and to determine "how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward."
With the "situational awareness" provided by the advisers and with intelligence assets being increased in and around Iraq, Obama said, "we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it."
But "American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again," he said, a point he made repeatedly in the White House briefing room. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis."
The administration is straddling difficult politics in Iraq and at home, seeking to answer Republican critics such as House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio who claim that Obama is "taking a nap" while Iraq crumbles and to assure political supporters that he is not opening a new front in the Middle East.
In Iraq, U.S. diplomats are urgently pushing for a new government that can prevent a sectarian civil war in which Kurds move to protect their northern territory, estranged Sunnis join the militants, and the majority Shiites retreat into an Iran-backed fortress.
While Obama did not call directly for the departure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he made clear that Maliki has not met the challenge of the current crisis.
"Right now is a moment where the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance," he said. "And the test for all of them is going to be where they can overcome the mistrust, the deep sectarian divisions, in some cases just political opportunism and say, this is bigger than any one of us, and we've got to make sure that we do what's right for the Iraqi people."
The United States has backed Maliki's leadership over the last eight years even as he shrugged off warnings about political inclusion and the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni extremist organization that was reborn as ISIS in Syria's civil war.
Following elections in April, a new Iraqi parliament has until the middle of August to choose a government. U.S. diplomats, meeting this week with Maliki's political rivals, have pressed them to move much more rapidly to form coalitions and establish a parliamentary majority. Those who say they will not support another government led by Maliki's Shiite alliance have been asked to propose alternatives.
'Between the lines'
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni, said he met with U.S. Ambassador Robert Stephen Beecroft and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk on Wednesday. While "they didn't say it directly," Mutlak said, "between the lines they realize we can't sit together with Maliki" in a future government.
On Wednesday evening, Vice President Biden called Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of the previous parliament and an outspoken critic of Maliki. Biden, according to Nujaifi spokesman Dhafer al-Ani, "didn't say he wanted Maliki out, but he said the United States didn't support Maliki. We made clear our position that we would not be part of a government headed by Maliki."
Forming a government after Iraq's last election, in 2010, took more than eight months; the U.S. goal now is that it happen within weeks. "Our consistent message to everybody is to keep it moving forward," said a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Obama said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region this weekend to consult with other governments in the Middle East and Europe. Kerry is also expected soon to travel to Iraq for a meeting with Maliki.
In addition to increasing intelligence assets in Iraq - including manned and unmanned aerial reconnaissance - Obama has ordered up to 275 troops to bolster security for the U.S. Embassy and other American facilities in Baghdad. Those troops, and the new ones Obama announced Thursday, will effectively double the U.S. military presence in Iraq. About 600 military personnel assigned to the embassy have been handling U.S. military sales and other forms of cooperation since the last combat troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.
Some of the newly authorized forces, drawn from U.S. Central Command units already in the Middle East, will establish joint operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning, including helping Iraqis target ISIS forces.
In the absence of any direct threat to U.S. personnel or facilities, Obama and other officials made clear that the United States will calibrate its assistance, including possible air strikes, based on Iraq's progress in forming a broad-based government.