WASHINGTON — Edging back into a military role in Iraq, President Barack Obama on Thursday said he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers to help quell the rising insurgency in the crumbling state. He called on Iraqi leaders to govern with a more “inclusive agenda” to ensure the country does not descend into civil war.
Though not specifically mentioning airstrikes, an option the U.S. has been considering, Obama said he was leaving open the possibility of “targeted” military action in the future. He said the U.S. also would increase its intelligence efforts in Iraq and was creating joint operations centers with Iraqis.
When coupled with previously announced steps, Obama’s actions could put about 600 additional U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq. The 300 military advisers he announced Thursday would join up to 275 being positioned in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests.
But he was adamant that U.S. troops would not be returning to combat.
“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,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”
Sketching a dire situation, Obama called this a moment when “the state of Iraq hangs in the balance” and cautioned that “there’s not going to be a simple military solution.”
He stopped short of calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders.” But he said those leaders “must rise above their differences and come together” for the sake of their nation.
“Let’s not plunge this back into the abyss,” he said.
Obama spoke after meeting with his national security team to discuss military options and consider how strongly to press al-Maliki to undertake changes and make his government more inclusive. Top U.S. officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns about al-Maliki may offer the best opportunity to stave off another deadly round of sectarian fighting of the kind that engulfed Iraq less than a decade ago.
U.S. officials have been concerned that pushing al-Maliki too hard might stiffen his resolve to stay in office and drive him closer to Iran, which is seeking to keep the Shiite leader in power. However the administration does want to see evidence of a leadership transition plan being put in place in Iraq.
Speaking in advance of the president’s announcement, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi voiced concern about Obama dispatching even a small contingent of Americans to Iraq.
“I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because that’s a number that has a tendency to grow. And so I’d like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for anything like that,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.
Separately, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he couldn’t tell if limited airstrikes would be effective until more was known about overall U.S. strategy.
He said Obama must craft a strategy for combating terrorism in the entire Middle East, not just Iraq. He declared, “This is a very serious problem, very serious.”
Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that he’s long called on Obama to take more action against terrorism, which he said has “increased exponentially” under this administration.
“You look at this presidency, and you can’t help but get the sense that the wheels are coming off,” Boehner said.
Boehner and Pelosi were among the congressional leaders who met with Obama on Iraq Wednesday. The leaders said the president told him they do not believe he needs authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency.