Hundreds of elite U.S. troops will deploy to Iraq, President Barack Obama said Thursday – but not to fight, only as advisers.
Warning that “the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance,” Mr. Obama hedged on whether he wanted a change in Iraqi leadership as the price for providing combat support in the form of air strikes.
“It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” the President said, in what was hardly an endorsement of Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but stopped well short of a demand that he quit.
Mindful that presidents sending a few hundred observers have – ever since Vietnam in the early 1960s – often slid into full-blown conflict, Mr. Obama vowed not to return to war in the Middle East.
“I think we always have to guard against mission creep,” the President said. “Let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
But the President offered crucial justification for possible U.S. air strikes, saying the Sunni insurgency led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has seized much of Iraq north and west of Baghdad, “poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region and to U.S. interests.”
In Iraq, a fierce battle raged over the nation’s largest refinery complex less than two hours’ drive north of Baghdad. Beneath a towering pall of oily smoke, Sunni insurgents fought soldiers loyal to Baghdad for control of the vital Beiji refinery lining the banks of the Tigris River near Tikrit.
As a wide war threatens, Mr. Obama ordered U.S. warplanes to fly reconnaissance missions in Iraqi skies – picking potential targets and plotting insurgent force movements – in readiness should the President escalate to air strikes.
Mr. Obama, first elected in 2008 on a promise to end U.S. involvement in what he once called the “dumb” war in Iraq, said Thursday he was still weighing bombing missions by U.S. warplanes to support Iraq’s army which, so far, has mostly fled in disarray from advancing Sunni insurgents.
Still, Mr. Obama ruled out a return to large-scale U.S. ground combat operations.
“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 President said, referring to the $1.7-trillion (U.S.) cost and more than 130,000 Iraqis killed as well as 4,500 U.S. military personnel, between 2003 and 2011.
With up to 275 Marines and special forces soldiers already on the move to bolster embassy defences and handle evacuation of the more than 5,000 U.S. citizens in Baghdad, the announcement Thursday of an additional 300 military advisers amounts to an importantly, albeit still largely symbolic, military commitment.
The President has also ordered the aircraft-carrier USS George H.W. Bush – carrying scores of fighter bombers, several guided-missile warships and a smaller carrier with a rapid-reaction force of 550 marines – into the Persian Gulf to be closer to targets in Iraq.
Claiming that U.S. interests were threatened provides the basis for action as Mr. Obama has repeatedly laid out in various versions of his still-unfolding military doctrine.
The President, who pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 – rejecting then the claims of critics that without an American combat-capable presence the war-ravaged country would again slide into civil war – said any new military involvement wouldn’t be one-sided.
“The United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States.”
Critics have long accused Mr. Obama of weakness in foreign policy but his handling of the Iraq crisis has ignited new denunciations.
Dick Cheney, vice-president to George W. Bush, and a prime advocate of the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Iraq’s brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, slammed Mr. Obama Thursday.
“Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” Mr. Cheney wrote in a variation of Winston Churchill’s stirring praise about the valiant defence of Britain by the Royal Air force fighter pilots known as “the Few.” In a Wall Street Journal article, co-written with his daughter Liz, Mr. Cheney said of Mr. Obama: “He abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”
At his White House news conference, Mr. Obama also held out the prospect of working in parallel with Iran to prevent Iraq being dismembered along sectarian lines.
“Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive and … if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected,” Mr. Obama said.
The President will send Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East this weekend for urgent talks on the Iraq crisis but it wasn’t clear whether high-level meetings with Iranian officials were under consideration.