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."
Given the rising threat, the president said the U.S. has "significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets so that we've got a better picture of what's taking place inside of Iraq."
"We're developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL, and 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," Mr. Obama said.
The Pentagon has been flying unarmed drones over Iraq for the past six months at the request of Mr. al-Maliki. Those drones have been gathering intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance information, essentially allowing the U.S. government to give Iraq a picture of the group's movements.
In the past several days, the Pentagon has increased the number of drone flights. Now, the Pentagon is looking to the 300 advisers on the ground to provide direction on how to increase its intelligence-gathering efforts, the official said.
"Part of what these 300 advisers will do is help us determine what additional [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] assets are required," the official said.
Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be targeted by the Islamic militant group, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Within the past week, Pentagon personnel have been in contact with representatives of all three countries regarding ISIL, according to the official.
In recent days, ISIL has slowed its pace, running into opposition in the portion of the country where Shiite Muslims have a stronghold.
"They had that one kind of lightning run through the north, but now they've kind of stopped," the official said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the crisis in Iraq is a direct result of Mr. Obama's eagerness to disengage militarily from trouble spots around the world.
"The threat from al Qaeda and other affiliated groups has now metastasized," Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. "The dogged adherence to withdrawing our conventional strength and sticking to campaign promises has created a more dangerous world, not a more stable one."
Republicans have criticized Mr. Obama for failing to leave a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2011. The president insisted Thursday that wasn't his fault because Mr. al-Maliki's government refused a U.S. demand to grant immunity to American troops.
"That's a core requirement that we have for U.S. troop presence anywhere," Mr. Obama said. "The Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki declined to provide us that immunity."
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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