After staking part of his legacy on ending the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama announced Thursday that up to 300 American troops would return there to advise Iraqi security forces on how to counter a growing threat from Islamist militants as they press ever closer to Baghdad, and left the door open to using American airstrikes to "take targeted and precise military action" if it is needed.
Obama said that the troops would not be combat forces but would serve in a train-and-advise role, adding that the United States has already been building up its intelligence capabilities inside the country and would create "joint operation centers" in northern Iraq and in Baghdad to share intelligence and coordinate planning against the threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.
But as he attempted to walk the line between addressing the security crisis in Iraq and being dragged into another war there, Obama stressed that he would ensure that the deployment of troops and other assets would not amount to "mission creep."
"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 from the White House. In response to a reporter's question on whether this would be the beginning of a "boots on the ground" scenario, Obama held firm, saying that ultimately this is a problem Iraq's military and political leaders have to solve.
In a conference call with reporters following Obama's remarks, a senior administration official wouldn't rule out a potential military strike on ISIS fighters in Syria, where they've maintained a stronghold amid a bloody civil war and from where they have flooded across the border into Iraq. The official said that ISIS hasn't limited its operations to one country and that the United States would not be "restricted" in taking actions to protect its national security. The official pointed to the United States' capture in Libya this week of the alleged ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attack as evidence of America's will to fight terrorists wherever they're located.
Obama was harshly critical of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom he accused of alienating the country's Sunni minority. But he stopped short of saying Maliki should go.
"It's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he said. "Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders." The divisions that exist among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders have to be eliminated, Obama said, adding that "as long as those deep divisions continue," it will be difficult for the government in Baghdad to command Iraqi security forces to stem the violence.
Obama's move, coming after days of withering criticism from both sides -- those who want airstrikes against militants or another definitive action, versus those who want the president to be more circumspect about entering the conflict -- will likely appease neither group. Yet for an administration that has been scolded for not consulting Congress on its national security decisions, one of its harshest critics seemed to have been brought on board.
The actions Obama announced are a "step in the right direction," Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, told Foreign Policy. Graham said he hoped Obama would use air power but would only use it in combination with diplomacy. "I hope that we would deploy air power in an aggressive fashion, but it has to be coupled with diplomacy," Graham said minutes after Obama's remarks at the White House. "The use of air power protects us against a very vicious enemy making further gains and having a larger safe haven. I think air power will create some momentum for political reconciliation, giving people confidence."
"I'm not a Republican on this," he said. "I made mistakes, Bush made mistakes, Obama's made mistakes -- but clearly the president understands that the ISIS is a threat to our homeland, a safe haven in Syria and Iraq is a direct threat to us. So he's responding. I wished he'd done it sooner more aggressively, but I think it's a step in the right direction."
Another top Republican on foreign policy, Senator Bob Corker, expressed support for the administration's approach thus far. "We're stepping up activities at multiple levels and I do think people are focused on it in the appropriate way," he said. "I think it's good for them to be communicating: To talk about how dire they see the situation to be how serious that it is ... and at the same time making sure that as they're doing what they're doing they're bringing Congress along too."
Other Republicans were more critical.
Sen. Dan Coats, the Republican from Indiana, said he thought Obama's announcement was "no game-changer" and that Maliki should be pushed to unite the country. But when asked whether Maliki should go, Coats was noncommittal.
"I think he's proven that he's incapable of forming any kind of government that can address in a political way the situation that exists there and give everybody a voice in terms of how they go forward," Coats told Foreign Policy. "But to date he hasn't decided to do that. With the extremists on the doorstep of Baghdad, you'd think he would."
Confronted with a worsening situation in Iraq that challenges the wisdom of removing all American troops from there in 2011 when negotiations over a long-term security arrangement between the two countries failed, the administration has been scrambling in recent days to find a politically and strategically viable approach to stem the insurgents' advance toward Baghdad. Critics believe that if the Obama White House had managed to hammer out a security agreement between the two countries, the United States could have maintained as many as 15,000 troops there to conduct train-and-advise and other operations inside Iraq.
To critics of the administration's Iraq policy, the presence of American troops would have increased the chances that the Iraqi security forces, which the United States spent years and billions of dollars to train and equip, could have stopped the Sunni militant group ISIS from being able to conquer broad swaths of Iraq in just a few weeks.
Shane Harris contributed reporting to this article.
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