Edging back into a military role in Iraq, President Barack Obama on Thursday said he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers to help quell the rising insurgency in the crumbling state. He called on Iraqi leaders to govern with a more "inclusive agenda" to ensure the country does not descend into civil war.
Though not specifically mentioning airstrikes, an option the United States has been considering, Obama said he was leaving open the possibility of "targeted" military action in the future. He said the United States also would increase its intelligence efforts in Iraq and was creating joint operations centers with Iraqis.
When coupled with previously announced steps, Obama's actions could put about 600 additional U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq. The 300 military advisers he announced Thursday would join up to 275 being positioned in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests.
But he was adamant that U.S. troops would not be returning to combat.
"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," Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis."
Sketching a dire situation, Obama called this a moment when "the state of Iraq hangs in the balance" and cautioned that "there's not going to be a simple military solution."
He stopped short of calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders." But he said those leaders "must rise above their differences and come together" for the sake of their nation.
"Let's not plunge this back into the abyss," he said.
Obama spoke after meeting with his national security team to discuss military options and consider how strongly to press al-Maliki to undertake changes and make his government more inclusive. Top U.S. officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns about al-Maliki may offer the best opportunity to stave off another deadly round of sectarian fighting of the kind that engulfed Iraq less than a decade ago.
U.S. officials have been concerned that pushing al-Maliki too hard might stiffen his resolve to stay in office and drive him closer to Iran, which is seeking to keep the Shiite leader in power. However the administration does want to see evidence of a leadership transition plan being put in place in Iraq.
Speaking in advance of the president's announcement, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi voiced concern about Obama dispatching even a small contingent of Americans to Iraq.
"I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because that's a number that has a tendency to grow. And so I'd like to see the context, purpose, timeline, and all the rest for anything like that," Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.
Separately, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he couldn't tell if limited airstrikes would be effective until more was known about overall U.S. strategy.
He said Obama must craft a strategy for combating terrorism in the entire Middle East, not just Iraq. He declared, "This is a very serious problem, very serious."
Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that he's long called on Obama to take more action against terrorism, which he said has "increased exponentially" under this administration.
"You look at this presidency, and you can't help but get the sense that the wheels are coming off," Boehner said.
Boehner and Pelosi were among the congressional leaders who met with Obama on Iraq Wednesday. The leaders said the president told him they do not believe he needs authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida inspired insurgency
On Thursday, the United States began flying F-18 attack aircraft from the carrier George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents. The carrier was ordered into the Gulf several days ago.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shiite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A government spokesman said around that around noon, its forces were in "complete control" but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing and ISIS militants were still present.
A day after the government publicly appealed for U.S. air power, there were indications Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the United States "does not view such attacks positively," given the risk to civilians. A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian divisions that have widened under Maliki.
Video aired by Al-Arabiya television showed smoke billowing from the Baiji plant and the black flag used by ISIS flying from a building. Workers who had been inside the complex, which spreads for miles close to the Tigris river, said Sunni militants seemed to hold most of the compound in early morning and that security forces were concentrated around the refinery's control room.
The 250 to 300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.
Baiji, 25 miles north of Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by an array of armed Sunni groups spearheaded by ISIS, which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, staffers shut down the plant, which makes much of the fuel Iraqis in the north need for both transport and generating electricity.
ISIS, which considers Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighboring Shiite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki's U.S.-armed forces collapsed.
The group's advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shiite militias, and other volunteers. The government announced on Thursday that those who joined up to fight in "hot areas" would be paid about $150 a week.
Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city, which houses a major Shi'ite shrine. A local police source said security forces withdrew without a fight when dozens of vehicles carrying insurgents converged on Mutasim from three directions.
ISIS, whose leader broke with al-Qaida after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect putting it well on the path to establishing its own well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a center for terrorism.
The Iraqi government made public on Wednesday its request for U.S. air strikes, 2½ years after U.S. forces ended the nine-year occupation that began by toppling Saddam in 2003.
Asked whether Washington would accede to that appeal, Kerry told NBC only that "nothing is off the table."
Some politicians have urged Obama to insist that Maliki goes as a condition for further U.S. help. Asked about U.S. aid for the prime minister, Kerry said: "What the United States is doing is about Iraq, it's not about Maliki. Nothing the president decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq."
He played down the extent of possible U.S. cooperation with Iran, the main Shiite power, which backs Maliki, saying Washington wanted communication on Iraq with its old enemy to avoid "mistakes," but would not work closely with Tehran.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Iraq has asked for drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq. However, officials note, targets for airstrikes could be hard to distinguish from civilians among whom ISIS' men were operating.
Turkish premier Erdogan said: "America, with its current stance and the statements it has made, does not view such attacks positively ... Such an operation could result in a serious number of deaths among civilians."
The Saudi source told Reuters: "No outside interference will be of any benefit," adding that Washington, France and Britain all agreed with Riyadh that "dialogue and a political solution is the way forward in Iraq."
Competing with Iran for regional influence — a rivalry that echoes 13 centuries of Sunni-Shiite strife — Saudi Arabia hit back angrily at an accusation this week by Maliki's government that Riyadh was promoting sectarian "genocide" by supporting ISIS. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called that "ludicrous" and said Saudis were fighting ISIS, an al-Qaida splinter group.
From Iran, which has pledged to intervene if necessary in Iraq to protect Shiite holy places, a tweet from an account linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei noted that Western powers support the mostly Sunni revolt against Syria's Iranian-backed leader. It called for Sunnis and Shiites to resist efforts by the militants and the West to divide Muslims.
A group of Islamist Sunni scholars led by the influential Qatar-based cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi called on Arab and Islamic states to protect Iraqi Sunnis, saying a "revolution" was "natural" because of the "great injustice" done to them.
If the Baiji refinery falls, ISIS and its allies will have access to a large supply of fuel to add to the weaponry and economic resources seized in Mosul and across the north.
An oil ministry official said the loss of Baiji would cause shortages in the north, including the autonomous Kurdish area, but that the impact on Baghdad would be limited — at around 20 percent of supplies — since it was served by other refineries.
Some oil companies have pulled out foreign workers.
Oil hit a nine-month high near $115 a barrel on concerns the fighting could limit supply from OPEC's second-biggest producer.
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