In addition to troop reinforcements reported earlier in the week, President Obama today announced the deployment of 300 military advisers to Iraq. These advisers would provide support and training to the Iraqi military, while previously announced deployments would secure U.S. diplomatic interests, such as the sprawling American embassy in Baghdad.
In a press conference at the White House today, Obama noted that these advisers aren’t “combat troops.”
“American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” he said. “We do not have the ability to solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops.”
After announcing his decision to send advisors to help the Iraq military, Obama emphasized that the situation ultimately must be resolved by Iraqis.
One of the many concerns here is whether the advisers, should they be engaged in combat, would have prosecutorial immunity from the Iraqi government, should anything go awry. The president was asked whether this was secured as he was leaving the press room and did not answer.
Regarding a report in The Wall Street Journalyesterday regarding whether the U.S. would seek to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the president seemed to have shot down that trial balloon.
Obama was asked specifically about whether President Nouri Maliki was in a position to answer that challenge. One of the key messages for Maliki, and other top political leaders in Iraq, was “get going on this government formation,” Obama said.
It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which these advisers wouldn’t become targets of the Sunni insurgency and especially the ISIS forces advancing toward Baghdad. While this is clearly not 2003, sending Americans into a deeply disintegrating sectarian conflict is nothing if not treacherous, and unless the best case scenario plays out, U.S. casualties in Iraq will rise for the first time since 2011.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. I just met with my national security team to discuss the situation in Iraq. We’ve been meeting regularly to review the situation since ISIL, a terrorist organization that operates in Iraq and Syria, made advances inside of Iraq. As I said last week, ISIL poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region and to U.S. interests. So today I wanted to provide you an update on how we’re responding to the situation.
First, we are working to secure our embassy and personnel operating inside of Iraq. As president, I have no greater priority than the safety of our men and women serving overseas. So I’ve taken some steps to relocate some of our embassy personnel, and we’ve sent reinforcements to better secure our facilities.
Second, at my direction we have significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq, and this will give us a greater understanding of what ISIL is doing, where it’s located and how we might support efforts to counter this threat.
Third, the United States will continue to increase our support to Iraqi security forces. We’re prepared to create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq, to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL. And through our new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, we’re prepared to work with Congress to provide additional equipment. We have had advisers in Iraq through our embassy, and we’re 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.
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.
Fourth, in recent days we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region. Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL, and 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. If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region. I want to emphasize, though, that the best and most effective response to a threat like ISIL will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces like Iraqis take the lead.
Finally, the United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners. And just as all Iraqis’ neighbors must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists.
Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds, all Iraqis must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities. Now that the results of Iraq’s recent election has been certified, a new parliament should convene as soon as possible.
The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
Now, it’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders. 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.
Meanwhile, the United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States. But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process, a more capable Iraqi security force, and counterterrorism efforts that deny groups like ISIL a safe haven.
In closing, recent days have reminded us of the deep scars left by America’s war in Iraq. Alongside the loss of nearly 4,500 American patriots, many veterans carry the wounds of that war, and will for the rest of their lives. Here at home, Iraq sparked vigorous debates and intense emotions in the past, and we’ve seen some of those debates resurface.
But what’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center, the issue that I keep front and center, is, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America? As commander in chief, that’s what I stay focused on. As Americans, that’s what all of us should be focused on.
And going forward, we will continue to consult closely with Congress, we will keep the American people informed, we will remain vigilant, and we will continue to do everything in our power to protect the security of the United States and the safety of the American people.