In a press conference Saturday morning, President Barack Obama once again affirmed that U.S. ground troops would not be sent into Iraq to combat the surging threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though he promised expanded humanitarian assistance and that all American citizens working in the country would be vigorously defended.
He also lashed out at critics who have noted Iraq’s near-collapse into sectarian violence following the removal of U.S. ground troops in 2011.
“Ultimately only Iraqis can ensure the safety and stability of Iraq,” Obama said. “Americans can’t do it for them, but we will continue to be partners in the effort.”
He cited the recent humanitarian air drops to religious minorities trapped on Mount Sinjar, and said that the government of France and the U.K. have signed on to help with the aid effort.
As for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, Obama said, “So far these strikes have successfully destroyed arms and equipment that [ISIS] could have used against [the Kurdish capital of] Irbil.”
The U.S. will defend American personnel in Iraq, which may require stepped up airstrikes since, as Obama said, “We’re not moving our embassy [in Baghdad] anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon.”
Obama stressed the importance of Iraqis taking the lead in the fight against ISIS, which is nearly impossible so long as the fractious Iraqi government remains without an official prime minister.
“The most important timetable is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalized,” Obama said. “We don’t have a prime minister and a cabinet… to begin reaching out [and unifying Iraqis against ISIL].”
Sunni and Kurdish members of parliament have walked out of heated negotiations as the Shiite majority continues to flex its muscle.
“It would be a big mistake for us to think that, on the cheap, we can go in and tamp everything down again… without a fundamental shift in the thinking of Iraqi factions,” Obama said, repeatedly urging Iraqi unity.
“What we’ve seen over the last few months has been… a wake-up call for a lot of Iraqis inside Baghdad,” he added, referring to ISIS’ rapid advance through northern and western Iraq. “I don’t think we’re gonna solve this problem in weeks. It’s gonna take some time.”
In response to a question, Obama said he may need to ask Congress for additional funding to support American efforts in Iraq.
Is the president having second thoughts about the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011?
“What I think is interesting is how often this keeps coming up as if it was my decision,” Obama contended. “Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign democratically-elected government. We had offered to leave additional troops. The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq is… that the majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there.”
He said he is frustrated by those who argue that his actions have contributed to the current dismal state of affairs in Iraq.
“That entire analysis is bogus, and it’s wrong,” Obama said. “It often gets peddled around here by people who are often trying to defend policies that they themselves made.”
While Obama may now pin the blame for American withdrawal on the Iraqis, it’s worth noting that he made a total withdrawal from Iraq a major part of his 2008 run for the presidency.
Obama said the situation in Iraq holds a lesson for leaders in Afghanistan.
“If you want this thing to work then different ethnicities, different religions, different regions, they’ve got to come together,” he said.
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