WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the U.S. would send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to assess how best to advise and train Iraqi forces. But the president stressed that American combat troops would not deploy to the country again.
“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 in the region and American interests as well,” Obama said.
The president made the announcement on Thursday afternoon after meeting with members of his national security team in the White House Situation Room.
The U.S. does not have ability to solve Iraq's problem by sending in thousands of troops, Obama said.
“Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis,” he said.
Obama said he sent reinforcements to secure the U.S. embassy and personnel working inside of Iraq, and ramped up intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to keep tabs on the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The al Qaida breakaway group made up of Sunni militants has taken over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, as well as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Tal Afar, a northern city with a population of 200,000.
The president said the U.S. is prepared to open joint operating centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq and provide additional equipment to Iraqi forces.
Although he ruled out troops on the ground, Obama did not rule out airstrikes or other forms military action in Iraq.
“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said. “If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said he supports Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. military personnel to advise Iraqi forces.
“These special operators will assess the situation on the ground, help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces, and increase their capacity to counter the threat posed” by ISIS, Hagel said in a statement.
Hagel reiterated Obama’s assertion that Iraq's problems can’t be resolved through American action alone.
“The only viable, long-term solution is a political one that brings together the Iraqi people and addresses the legitimate interests and concerns of all of Iraq's communities. Iraq's government must summon the courage to unite and lead all of its people,” he said. He added that the Department of Defense will continue to plan and prepare further military options should they become necessary.
Democrats commended Obama for taking action, while Republicans criticized his plan for not going far enough.
“The announcement of additional military advisers and assets is a prudent move to assess the (ISIS) threat, and I look forward to continued close consultation with the administration on any potential military action,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern, South and Central Asian Affairs.
Republicans, many of whom have blamed Obama for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, complained that sending a few hundred advisers to the country was an inadequate response to the crisis.
“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,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said Americans are losing confidence in the president’s stewardship of national security.
“Our adversaries and allies lost confidence a while ago,” McKeon said in a statement. “There isn’t going to be a perfect resolution to this crisis. I want to urge the President_for once_to make up his mind and commit to a comprehensive course of action in the region.”
He urged the president to send a detailed proposal to Congress as soon as possible to fund additional assets in Iraq.
Obama’s remarks come a day after he met with Congressional leaders and reportedly told them he did not need their approval to act in Iraq, but would keep them in the loop.
The president “reviewed our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Iraq's security forces to confront the threat” including “options for increased security assistance,” according to a White House statement about the meeting.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after the meeting on Wednesday that Obama “indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take. And indicated he would keep us posted.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-N.M., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both have said past authorizations from Congress for the use of military force in Iraq still apply and Obama doesn’t need to seek any further approval from lawmakers.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Il., said he was glad to hear Obama say on Thursday that he’d consult with Congress. “I am always in favor of having a political context,” he said. “I think the U.S. Congress should approve limited air strikes to make sure terrorists don’t take over Iraq.”
Kirk said he’s worried that the total withdrawal process in Iraq could lead to the defeat of the US and its allies in Afghanistan.
“I think right now everybody in Afghanistan is going to be watching this whether we can actually stand and fight,” he said.
William Douglas contributed to this report.