WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Thursday that he is sending 300 military advisers to Iraq, and that he is dispatching Secretary of State John F. Kerry to the region in search of a diplomatic solution, as sectarian violence escalated in the nation where Obama had vowed to end US combat.
“There’s no military solution inside of Iraq . . . not one that’s led by the United States,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room after a lengthy meeting with his national security team.
The two moves underscored the uncertainty surrounding how to end the latest conflict in Iraq, where the last US troops pulled out in 2011 amid hope that the nation’s political leaders could form a unified government.
Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, is widely viewed as widening the sectarian divisions with Sunni Muslims, which in turn created the environment in which Sunni insurgents have overtaken Mosul and some other Iraqi cities, and are threatening Baghdad.
As a result, Maliki’s level of support with the White House and Congress has been diminishing rapidly in recent months.
In his remarks, the president warned Maliki that more needed to be done to include minority groups in the Iraqi government. Obama did not respond directly when asked at a White House press conference whether he had confidence in Maliki.
“It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders. But I don’t think there’s any secret that right now at least there is deep divisions between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders.”
The turmoil has put the Obama administration in a difficult position as the White House weighs how much to intervene in a conflict Obama had opposed from the start.
Obama emphasized he was not sending combat troops, but he left open the possibility that the US could escalate its military involvement. The 300 military advisers could take on an intelligence-gathering role that could guide military strikes.
“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said, stressing that he would consult with Congress if such action is needed.
Kerry is being sent to the region in hopes that he can persuade Iraqis, and those in neighboring countries, to work together for a peaceful settlement.
The White House did not say whether he would meet with Maliki, but Obama said Kerry is planning to leave this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he will consult with allies and partners.
The events in Iraq create a trying scenario for Kerry, who initially supported the war but later during his 2004 presidential run criticized President Bush’s handling of the conflict and now finds himself trying to lay diplomatic groundwork that will negate the need for further US military involvement.
Political divisions in Washington about how to respond to the Iraq crisis continued to escalate as well.
Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, derided the president for what he called “years of disengagement,” as well as “indecisiveness” and for taking only a “half-step” to address the spiraling situation.
“The American people are losing confidence in the president’s stewardship of our national security,” McKeon said in a statement. “Our adversaries and allies lost confidence a while ago.”
He called on Obama to take “a comprehensive course of action,” including sending to Congress a proposal outlining the additional military assets he would like to provide to the embattled Iraqi government.
Republican Senators John McCain, of Arizona, and Lindsay Graham, of South Carolina, said they were concerned that Obama was not acting swiftly enough with military force.
“The country is descending into sectarian conflict,” they said in a joint statement. “And Iraq’s dependence on Iran is deepening. We must act now to help Iraqis arrest their country’s descent into chaos, or the current crisis may soon spiral further out of control.”
John Negroponte, a former US ambassador to Iraq in the Bush administration who also served as the nation’s director of national intelligence, credited Obama for taking some action to assist the Iraqi government.
But he said “there have been too many pregnant pauses” in US policy toward Iraq and believes the administration must exert far more influence to force the Maliki government to be more inclusive, including by organizing the diplomatic might of Iraq’s neighbors and leading US allies.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, said Obama was dangerously escalating US involvement by raising the prospect of US airstrikes.
Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, said he agrees with Obama that the conflict has no viable military solution, “certainly not one that is led by the United States.”
But he said he has deep reservations about sending up to 300 more advisers, on top of the 275 already dispatched to help guard the US embassy in Baghdad.
“I have questions about the 300 advisers,” said McGovern, who opposed the US-led invasion. “What are they going to be doing? Where are they going to be stationed? There can be a slippery slope.
“I don’t think we should be militarily injecting ourselves again. We already paid a heavy price.”
McGovern expressed doubts in an interview that propping up the Maliki government will help the situation unless there is a marked change.
“The government is corrupt, brutal, not inclusive,” he said. “By any measure, it is a disaster. If the government of Iraq doesn’t change its attitude, there is nothing we can do.”
Stephen Miles, coordinator of Win Without War, a coalition of peace advocacy groups, called the announcements a “dangerous retreat from the conditions that the president set for US engagement.”
Although Obama said combat troops won’t be deployed, the president said the US is prepared to help create joint operation centers in Baghdad and in northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning.
The additional military advisers will help determine how to advise, train, and support Iraqi security forces.
“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.
Still, more US ships are being deployed to the region, senior administration officials said, and US intelligence agencies are developing more information about potential targets.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the additional advisers were a “reasonable step to enable us to assess the security situation there.”