President Barack Obama said the U.S. will send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces in the face of advancing Islamist militants, but vowed that no American combat troops will return to fight.
Obama said “the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance” and that the country’s political leadership must cooperate across sectarian lines.
The 300 Green Berets will help train and advise Iraqi forces. They are separate from the 275 forces Obama announced earlier this week would be sent to secure the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
“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.
The Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken control of large swaths of Iraq with the ambition of creating an Islamic state across the Iraq-Syria border and beyond.
Before the announcement, Obama met with members of his national security team including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
Obama met with congressional leaders Wednesday at the White House, where he reportedly said the administration can intervene without congressional authorization.
Obama has repeatedly said there is a growing need for a political solution, calling on the Shiite-majority government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be more inclusive of the minority Sunnis and Kurds in the country. ISIS is a Sunni Muslim group.
“Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to lead Iraq through this crisis,” Obama said, though he added later: “It is not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders. Part of what we fought for was for Iraq to have the ability to choose their own destiny and choose their own leaders.”
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Iraqi leader Wednesday and emphasized a need for him to govern in an inclusive manner, according to a White House readout of the conversation.
The Obama administration reportedly would like to see a new government.
Republicans have criticized Obama for withdrawing all the U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, rather than leaving behind a security contingency to assist the democratically elected government established after the United States-led invasion ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Obama demurred on whether he wished he had left a residual security force behind in Iraq.
“That was not a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government,” Obama said. The Iraqi government at the time could not reach an agreement to provide immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers.
Democrats contend that the chaotic situation would have never occurred if not for the ill-advised Iraq war effort by the Bush administration.