President Barack Obama today announced plans to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help the government in Baghdad combat a rapid advance by Sunni-led insurgents who have taken over towns and cities and routed Iraqi troops in the north and west of the country, a situation which the president said threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war.
“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 during an appearance in the White House press room, saying the U.S. forces will help train, advise and support Iraqi security forces.
The president spoke after another in what have been a series of meetings with his national security team to review options on how to respond to Iraq’s request for military assistance in putting down rapid gains made by insurgents led by Syrian-based fighters known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, whose advance on Baghdad has threatened reprisals from Iraq’s Shiite majority and a return of full blown sectarian conflict.
“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.
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Demspey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress further intelligence would be needed about the situation on the ground along with clear objectives in order for possible airstrikes or other military intervention to be effective.
Obama said joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq will be stood up to better share intelligence and coordinate planning with the Iraqis as they confront the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. These steps are in addition to surveillance flights the United States is already conducting along with the positioning of increased U.S. military assets in the region.
Obama again called on Iraq’s political leaders including Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rise above sectarian differences and develop a broad-based political plan for ending a crisis that he said cannot be resolved through military means.
“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “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.”
To that end, Obama said the United States will launch a diplomatic initiative to work with Iraq’s leaders and countries in the region and dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East for talks with allies and partners.
During an exchange with reporters, Obama said his administration has told Maliki there “has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurds all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” and that “as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats.”
Obama said the rapid collapse of two divisions of the Iraqi military and the threat of sectarian conflict “have reminded us of the deep scars left by America’s war in Iraq” and the sacrifice made by nearly 4,500 Americans, as well as “the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action.”
But in announcing his decision to send military advisers to Iraq, the president said it is in the U.S. national security interests not to see “an all-out civil war inside Iraq.”
In addition, a senior U.S official said the terrorist group ISIS — an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq — if not confronted, would attempt to create a caliphate and expand its influence across a huge swath of territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, creating a safe haven for extremists groups that could eventually target the United States.
Special Operators Will Assess Situation in Iraq
Special operators that President Barack Obama is sending to Iraq, up to 300 U.S. military personnel, will form assessment teams to evaluate the situation on the ground there and boost Iraq’s ability to counter the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL.
During a press briefing here this afternoon, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the first set of assessment teams will focus on three areas in Iraq.
The teams will first assess “the state, the cohesiveness and the capability of the Iraqi security forces,” Kirby said.
Also, he added, the teams will assess “the situation on the ground to help us gain more intelligence and more information about what ISIL is doing and how they’re doing it.”
The third area, Kirby said, “is, quite frankly, to assess the feasibility and future potential for follow-on [U.S.] advisory teams.”
The United States hasn’t been present in Iraq in large numbers since 2011, the admiral said. Before adding advisers, he added, the president and his security team need a better sense of where military advisers will be used, for how long, and in what units.
“Just like in any unfolding situation, even a disaster-relief operation, one of the first things you do is to deploy assessment teams to [determine] requirements before you start flowing in support,” Kirby said. “That’s what I think these first couple of teams will do for us.”
In a June 19 statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he supported the president’s decision to send military advisers to Iraq.
“[And] as the president has repeatedly made clear, Iraq’s problems cannot be resolved through American action alone, or through military force alone,” the secretary said.
“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,” Hagel added. “Iraq’s government must summon the courage to unite and lead all of its people.”
Kirby said the first few teams, which are not yet operational, will be drawn from personnel already in Iraq, working in U.S. Embassy-Baghdad’s Office of Security Cooperation.
Advisers and teams that come later will be from inside U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, he added. Such countries include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and others.
“The teams will assess and advise. They are not being sent to participate in combat,” Kirby reaffirmed, adding that he expects assessment teams beyond the first few to enter the country “over the next week or so.”
Kirby said U.S. military services routinely perform such missions worldwide with military services from other countries — in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, the Americas and elsewhere.
“Force protection remains a priority,” the admiral said.
The advisers, he added, “just like troops that do advising missions elsewhere around the world, have the right of self-defense. And just like anywhere else in the world, if there’s a situation where we need to get them to medical care, we’re going to do it as quickly as we possibly can.”
The total number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, including the advisers Obama is sending, is less than 400, Kirby said.
The United States also provides intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance support to Iraq’s government, he said, and the support is intensifying.
“We now are flying enough flights, manned and unmanned, that we provide around-the-clock coverage. We’re not looking at the whole country, [just] parts … that are of greatest interest,” the admiral said.
Once the United States has better information about the situation, a decision can be made about follow-on activity, he added.
Incoming troops will be embedded, at least initially, at the headquarters level down to about the brigade level, he said.
The Iraqi government requested the mission and the United States is consulting on its actions with the Iraqis, Kirby said.
“As we do elsewhere around the world, we will ensure that our troops have the appropriate legal protections … so they can operate as they need to operate,” the admiral said.
Asked about the Defense Department’s level of concern on the takeover by ISIL militants of Saddam Hussein’s Al Muthanna chemical weapons facility, Kirby said the best understanding is that the material inside the facility is old and “not likely to be able to be accessed or used against anyone right now.”
U.S. information about the facility isn’t perfect, he said, and any progress that ISIL fighters make is a concern.
“But we aren’t viewing this particular site and their holding it as a major issue at this point,” Kirby added. “Should they even be able to access the materials, frankly, it would likely be more of a threat to them than anyone else.”
In response to another question, the admiral said the Defense Department has indications that there are “small numbers” of Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives in Iraq but that he’s seen no indication of ground forces or major units.
Kirby called the Iraq mission a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement to help the U.S. get eyes on the ground, get a better sense of what’s going on and “to create the kind of intelligence we need should the president decide to take other action.”
The Defense Department has good support on the mission from allies and partners in the region, he added, “and we appreciate that.”
Regarding the Iraqi security forces, Kirby said, “we’re starting to see some cohesiveness and some fight and that’s certainly encouraging, but certainly nobody’s … willing to stop monitoring it or to stop having a shared sense of concern about the progress that ISIL has made.”
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service