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U.S. to send 300 troops to Iraq

Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint outside Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The fighting at Beiji comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.(AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint outside Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The fighting at Beiji comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.(AP Photo)

President Obama announced yesterday that he is sending up to 300 U.S. troops to Iraq to help Iraqi military forces deal with an onslaught by radical Islamist fighters inspired by al-Qaida.

Addressing the Iraq situation in a statement from the White House Briefing Room, Obama insisted that he would not send combat troops back into Iraq. He said the contingent he is sending would operate as “advisers.”

He stopped short of openly calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, but he stressed that Iraq needs leadership that is more accommodating toward the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well,” Obama said.

He said that “we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region” and that increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts are helping to develop “more information about potential targets” associated with insurgents of the radical Sunni Muslim group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Obama added that “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” – an apparent reference to the prospect of U.S. airstrikes. But he emphasized that “the United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another.”

He said it was not up to the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders, but he made it clear that the Maliki government has been unable to bridge “deep divisions” among Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

‘Inclusive agenda’

The Obama administration is seeking alternatives to Maliki as Iraqis move to form a new government following recent parliamentary elections, according to U.S. officials.

“Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future,” Obama said. “Now, it’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders. It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”

Now that the results of Iraq’s recent elections have been certified, “a new parliament should convene as soon as possible,” Obama said, adding: “The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.”

“We do not have the ability to solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops,” Obama said.

In response to a question about the role of neighboring Iran, which is ruled by Shiite clerics, Obama said: “Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we are sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it is inclusive. . . . If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation.”

Obama’s decision immediately came under criticism from congressional Republicans.

“The plan that the president announced today in response to the rapid terrorist expansion in Iraq underestimates the seriousness of the threat,” Rep. Edward Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement. “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.”

Royce is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Obama spoke shortly after meeting with his national security team in the White House Situation Room.

The team met to discuss the situation in Iraq as the government in Baghdad expressed frustration yesterday over U.S. reluctance to launch airstrikes against the insurgents, pleading for American assistance as the militants battled for control of Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.

Refinery’s fate unknown

There were conflicting reports on the fate of the Baiji oil refinery, 140 miles northwest of the Iraqi capital. A provincial official said it fell to ISIL insurgents yesterday. But the Shiite-led central government insisted that the refinery, although shut down earlier in the week, was still in the hands of security forces.

ISIL forces have rampaged through northern Iraq since seizing the region’s largest city, Mosul, last week as government forces melted away, giving up large swaths of territory without a fight. Since then, thousands of Shiites have answered a call to arms from the nation’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the government has claimed some gains against the insurgents.

Despite a request from the Maliki government for U.S. “air power” in the fight against the insurgents, the Obama administration signaled Wednesday that it was reluctant to launch airstrikes in Iraq or intervene militarily, telling Congress that a bombing campaign would be complicated and that Iraq’s political divisions needed to be addressed first.

Obama notified Congress on Monday that he was dispatching up to 275 military personnel to Iraq to provide support and extra security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States withdrew its remaining troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 after Baghdad rejected U.S. conditions for keeping a residual force in the country eight years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Although Obama last week ruled out “sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” reports emerged yesterday that the Pentagon had offered him a plan under which up to 100 U.S. Special Operations forces – likely Army Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs – would be sent to Iraq to advise its military and collect intelligence.

CNN reported that teams would be placed across Iraq in the headquarters of Iraqi military brigades and tasked with gathering intelligence on ISIL forces, such as their location, numbers and weaponry. Such information would be needed if Obama decided to go ahead with airstrikes on ISIL forces.

In the fall of 2001, small teams of U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitary officers were secretly sent to Afghanistan to link up with Afghan fighters opposed to the Taliban and coordinate airstrikes against the radical Islamist movement’s forces. The strikes proved highly effective in enabling the Afghan Northern Alliance to gain ground from the Taliban and ultimately to take the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Rush could backfire

The Pentagon’s top leaders warned Wednesday that a rush to action in Iraq could backfire if targets and goals were unclear.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Appropriations Committee panel that pinpointing targets in an air campaign would be difficult, especially because the insurgents have melted into the local population.

The broader problem, he added, is that the Maliki government has worsened Iraq’s sectarian divisions, alienating the country’s Sunnis and Kurds.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian disaster has been mushrooming in northern Iraq. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF on Wednesday upgraded Iraq’s latest crisis to a level 3 disaster, its most severe designation, and U.N. officials said they were scrambling to provide basic services while preparing to cope with an estimated 1.5 million displaced people.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday that the insurgents almost certainly have committed war crimes by carrying out an “apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions” near the northern city of Tikrit. She cited corroborated reports that hundreds of noncombatants have been summarily executed, including Shiite religious leaders who reportedly refused to pledge fealty to ISIL.

ISIL was originally known as al-Qaida in Iraq when it battled U.S. forces in the years following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The radicals, whose ambition is to establish a Sunni caliphate throughout the Middle East, also have terrorized Shiites, whom they regard as heretics. The group’s brutal methods are too extreme even for al-Qaida, which has publicly repudiated it.

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