WASHINGTON (CNN) — Seeking a middle ground between calls for tough military action and none at all, President Barack Obama said Thursday he was sending up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help the embattled government hold off a lightning advance from the north by Sunni militants.
Obama told White House reporters the goal was to prevent a civil war in Iraq that could destabilize the region, and also prevent creation of a terrorist safe haven in northern Iraq and neighboring Syria from which U.S. enemies could plan and launch attacks against American interests.
At the same time, Obama sought to allay fears of a military escalation that could relaunch the eight-year war he halted by withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011.
“We have had advisers in Iraq through our embassy and we are prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisers — up to 300 — to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward,” the President said.
“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.
Senior administration officials told reporters after Obama’s statement the United States will be sending the advisers to Iraq.
Obama also said his strategy meant that “going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
The language signaled possible air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters who have swept toward Baghdad in recent weeks.
Earlier, several U.S. officials told CNN that the Pentagon proposed sending about 100 special forces — probably Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs — to Iraq as military advisers and to collect intelligence. Obama’s statement offered no details on the advisers’ units.
The term military adviser evokes memories of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. government used that label for initial American forces sent over in what ended up as a long and costly engagement.
U.S. officials acknowledged the American military advisers would likely face danger based on their location.
Boots on the ground
CNN military analyst Rick Francona said the decision amounts to U.S “boots on the ground” in Iraq, no matter what the administration says.
“This is the first step. This is how you get drawn into these situations,” said Francona, adding that the mission must be clearly defined to avoid greater military involvement.
In his statement, Obama rejected criticism that bringing home troops from Iraq three years ago contributed to the current crisis, saying it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who rejected a residual force agreement over the need for a core requirement that would immunize U .S. troops from local prosecution.
Obama also made clear that he blamed al-Maliki for worsening Iraq’s deep secular divide by failing to include Sunni and Kurdish interests in his policies.
He called on a new Iraqi government recently elected to adopt more inclusive policies, and said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to promote such an inclusive approach.
U.S. officials familiar with the Pentagon plan, who spoke to CNN on condition of not being identified, said the deployment would begin with several small military teams and grow larger over time.
Teams would be placed around Iraq in the headquarters of Iraqi military brigades and tasked with gathering intelligence on ISIS forces, such as their location, numbers and weaponry, the officials said.
Such information could provide needed intelligence if Obama decides to proceed with airstrikes on ISIS fighters, as requested by Iraq.
Air strikes an option
For days, military sources have said ISIS fighters are dispersed and mixed in with local populations, making them difficult to target precisely with airstrikes.
Francona noted that the U.S. special forces would be “in a great position to call in any air strikes” if Obama decided to use that option too.
On Wednesday, the President met with congressional leaders and later with Kerry on the Iraq crisis, which has prompted Republican criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the hyper- partisan environment of an election year in Washington.
According to a White House statement, Obama went over efforts to “strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to confront the threat” from ISIS fighters, “including options for increased security assistance.”
Earlier, spokesman Jay Carney spelled out one limit to any help, saying: “The President hasn’t ruled out anything except sending U.S. combat troops into Iraq.”
While the White House statement emphasized Obama would continue to consult with Congress, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the President “basically just briefed us on the situation in Iraq and indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for the steps that he might take.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California agreed with McConnell’s assessment, adding she believed congressional authorization for military force in Iraq back in 2001 and 2003 still applied.
A few hours earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said they were working out details on possible U.S. steps that could include airstrikes on Sunni militants advancing through northern Iraq.
They noted that final details, especially for airstrikes requested by the Iraqi government, required more intelligence on the ISIS fighters whose advance has raised the specter of a partitioned Iraq and a broader Sunni-Shiite regional war.
Dempsey and Hagel agreed with subcommittee members that the Iraq crisis amounted to a threat to U.S. interests in the region and, down the road, a possible threat to the homeland if northern Iraq and neighboring Syria become a safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists.
At the White House on Wednesday, Carney made clear that Obama’s “ultimate objective” was to protect national security interests and prevent the region from becoming a safe haven for ISIS extremists.
“Any action that he might contemplate when it comes to … the use of military force will be to deal with the immediate and medium-term threat posed” by the militants, Carney said, noting that 170 U.S. military personnel have been sent to Baghdad to assist in securing embassy personnel inside Iraq, while another 100 moved into the region to “provide airfield management security and logistic support, if required.”
Obama has advocated less unilateral U.S. intervention abroad than his predecessor, GOP President George W. Bush, who led America into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Now Republicans hoping to win control of the Senate and maintain their House majority in the November election have sought to depict Obama’s foreign policy as weak and ineffective. They claim that a U.S. failure to intervene more forcefully on behalf of Syrian opposition forces created an opening for the Sunni militant movement now marching toward Baghdada.
House Speaker John Boehner, who attended the White House meeting with Obama a day earlier, told reporters on Thursday that the Iraq crisis amounted to a broader foreign policy failure by the administration.
“When you look it is not just Iraq,” the Ohio Republican said. “It is Libya, it’s Egypt, it’s Syria. The spread of terrorism has increased exponentially under this President’s leadership.”
Administration officials blame Iraq’s crisis on the failure of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to govern more inclusively over a nation with major sectarian divisions, especially between the Sunni-dominated north and Shia-dominated south.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said al-Maliki needs to be convinced that his retirement would be in his country’s best interest.
“I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” she said this week.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Jim Sciutto and Laura Koran contributed to this report.