President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the United States would send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq in response to its request for assistance after militants seized wide swaths of its territory.
Obama held out the possibility of airstrikes. But he stressed anew that it was up to the Iraqi government to forge a political accommodation with the country’s Shiite and Sunni sects, and that there was no chance the United States would ever send combat troops back to Iraq.
“American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” he told reporters at the White House. “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops. … Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
Obama said he is still considering possible airstrikes to aid the Iraqis.
“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it,” he said Thursday after meeting with his national security advisers.
A senior administration said strikes would be considered only after Obama receives “better information” about the situation in Iraq. Asked whether the strikes could extend into neighboring Syria, the official said they would not be restricted to a “specific geographic space.”
“The United States will take action if we believe it’s in our national security interest,” said the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of White House policy.
Obama did not directly answer reporters’ questions about whether he supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who many have faulted for failing to unify factions.
“It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to the Middle East and Europe this weekend to consult with foreign leaders about Iraq.
Obama’s announcement was designed to show that he was acting to help the Iraqi government combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant while ensuring Americans he would not be dragged back into a war he campaigned against.
But on Capitol Hill, Republicans said Obama did not respond quickly or forcefully enough.
“Although a political solution to Iraq’s troubles might have been an appropriate goal in 2005 or 2011, it simply may not be feasible in 2014,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. “The time for this sort of argument would have been three years ago, when America was the most influential voice in Baghdad.”
On Thursday, Iraqi forces said they beat back an assault by militants on the country’s largest oil refinery, but conflicting news reports suggest the battle over the facility was far from over.
Gordon Adams, a senior White House national security budget official in the Clinton administration and a professor at American University, said he is skeptical that 300 advisers would be able to quickly turn around the Iraqi military.
But Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the move a “key first step in dealing with the crisis.”
Former President George W. Bush signed the agreement in 2008 that set the deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, but Republicans have long criticized Obama for not allowing some troops to stay.
Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday that Obama’s response underestimates the seriousness of the threat.
“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,” he said. “Yes, Iraqis must solve their differences on their own, but this crisis comes as the administration has disengaged from Iraq and willfully ignored well-known threats.”
The U.S. military advisers will be deployed in small teams of a dozen or so each to “assess,” a senior administration official said.
“We’re going to start small and see what we learn from that,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
Obama also announced that the United States will set up joint operation centers to coordinate intelligence and planning with Iraqis, send more equipment to the region and secure diplomatic facilities.
In the Central Command area, which oversees the Middle East, the United States has than 30,000 troops at sea and ashore.
In the last several days, the administration has sent the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush into the Arabian Gulf with two additional escort warships and the amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde with more than 500 Marines on board into the Arabian Gulf. Two destroyers had been previously scheduled to the area.
An additional 270 security personnel were sent to the region to assist with security at the embassy in Baghdad and other facilities: 170 are in Iraq, and 100 are part of a contingency force outside Iraq in case they are needed.