President Obama said Thursday that he is sending up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to aid in the urgent fight against advancing Sunni militants, ramping up U.S. involvement in the country less than three years after he withdrew all American troops.
Speaking after a White House meeting with his top national security advisers, Mr. Obama stopped short of ordering airstrikes against the insurgents but said he might take “targeted” action if necessary. The president emphasized that he won’t send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.
“American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” Mr. Obama said. “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq.”
The announcement nevertheless was a turnabout under pressure for Mr. Obama, who is confronted with a swiftly advancing terrorist organization in Iraq after taking credit for ending the war there. Mr. Obama spoke of the need for a political solution in Iraq and refused to say whether the U.S. still has confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the administration blames for inflaming sectarian divisions in OPEC’s second-largest oil producer.
“The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders,” Mr. Obama said. “The fate of Iraq hangs in the balance.”
The U.S. began flying F-18 attack aircraft from the USS George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents. The carrier was ordered into the Gulf several days ago.
A senior Pentagon official told The Washington Times that the 300 advisers headed to Iraq are expected to ascertain which intelligence assets should be directed to the region, to expand the Defense Department’s eyes-in-the-sky operation.
Critics said Mr. Obama is taking ineffective half-measures that aren’t likely to stop the insurgency threatening to tear apart the country.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said Mr. Obama “underestimates the seriousness of the threat” and should have ordered drone strikes against fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who have overrun several cities in northern Iraq.
“This crisis comes as the administration has disengaged from Iraq and willfully ignored well-known threats, including the growing strength of the al Qaeda offshoot there and in Syria over the past two years,” Mr. Royce said. “The Iraqis have been requesting U.S. drone strikes against terrorist camps for nearly a year, and this administration has repeatedly said ‘no,’ even as they have captured town after town.”
More than 100 miles north of Baghdad near Tikrit, the sprawling Baiji oil refinery was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shiite-led government held off insurgents from ISIL and its allies who stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A spokesman said government forces were in “complete control” around midday.
But a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing. Two Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the refinery remained under ISIL control.
With the fighting raging, Mr. Obama sounded a bit like the Bush administration officials he often criticized for going to war in Iraq, saying the U.S. has “counterterrorism interests” in stabilizing the country. He expressed concern about the impact of the chaos on “global energy markets.”
“We also have an interest in making sure that we don’t have a safe haven that continues to grow for ISIL and other extremist jihadist groups who could use that as a base of operations for planning and targeting ourselves, our personnel overseas and eventually the homeland,” Mr. Obama said. “It is in our national interests not to see an all-out civil war in Iraq.”