President Obama announced plans to send a team of U.S. military advisers to Iraq to try help the country's security forces beat back an al Qaeda-inspired insurgency gaining ground across large swaths of the country.
"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq," he said Thursday during a statement in the White House's James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. "But we will help to take the fight to the terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests."
The president said the U.S. already had increased is reconnaissance operations in Iraq and plans to create joint Iraqi-U.S. operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to "share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat."
Obama said he will ask Congress to provide additional military equipment through a proposed counter-terrorism partnership fund.
The decision to send the military teams, Obama said, demonstrates the U.S. commitment to the stability and future of a unified Iraq, but the president also stressed that Iraqis must make major political reforms in order to quell the violence and ultimately solve their own problems.
"Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together on a political plan for Iraq's future," he said.
Last week Obama ruled out putting boots back on the ground in Iraq, and the president Thursday stressed that the military team — roughly 300 strong — would not play a combat role but would help Iraqi forces "assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward."
Intelligence capabilities appear to be sorely lacking as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni extremist group, seized several Iraqi cities and most of an oil refinery over the past two weeks.
In deciding to re-engage in Iraq by sending a very small group of strategic military advisers, Obama is striking a middle-ground approach, and rejecting — at least for now — the call for airstrikes, as well as arguments from many in his party against intervening in any way.
Obama left the door open to airstrikes in the future, saying U.S. military assets are positioned in the region should he determine at a later date to take "precise and targeted" military action.
The announcement also comes as the administration signaled its frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and his history of consolidating power by purging the government and the military of Sunni influence.
While Obama said it's inappropriate for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders, he took a veiled shot at al-Maliki, stressing 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.”
Soon after the U.S. pulled all troops out of Iraq in 2011, al-Maliki started consolidating power by purging Sunnis from government and military leadership positions.
Obama said al-Maliki is well aware of the U.S. desire that he move quickly to form a more inclusive government but did not indicate whether the U.S. was conditioning its military assistance on those reforms.
“We've said that to him privately, we've said publicly – that whether he is prime minister or any other leaders aspires to lead the country, that is has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurd all feel they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” Obama said.
When asked if he regretted the decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq after 2011, Obama pinned the blame squarely on al-Maliki for refusing to sign a sign a Status of Forces agreement that would grant remaining troops immunity from possible crimes if they were forced to defend themselves.
“Keep in mind that wasn't a decision made by me,” he said. “...The Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki declined to provide us that immunity.”
It's also up to the Iranians to determine whether to play a constructive role in trying to bring about a more inclusive government or to simply help bolster Shiites and further disenfranchize Sunnis as they have in Syria.
“An Iraq in chaos on their borders is probably not in their interests,” he said of the Iranians. “But old habits die hard...We'll have to see whether they can take what I think would be a more promising path over the next several days.”
Obama took his time in weighing his options before making the decision to refocus any U.S. resources on Iraq, a dramatic reversal from his original goals in the region. Six years ago, he campaigned on extracting the U.S. out of the Middle East after years of war and turning the country's attention back to domestic matters.
After nearly 13 years of war and an uneven economic recovery, polls show the country is overwhelmingly opposed to sending combat troops to deal with the crisis in Iraq.
But many are willing to support airstrikes if necessary to stop the violence there, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll released this week. By a 48 to 30 percent margin, a plurality of respondents said they would support an airstrike campaign while a 52 percent to 29 percent percent majority said they would support drone strikes.
Obama also has new reasons to worry about his foreign policy legacy. Faced with multiple international challenges, including in Iraq, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Tuesday, found that just 37 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, which is an all-time low in the survey, while 57 percent disapprove, an all-time high.
Republicans have spent the last week blaming Obama's reluctance to intervene early for the unraveling of Iraq, as well as the ongoing violent clashes in Syria and other hotspots in the Middle East.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama has relied too heavily on international organizations and his reluctance to act unilaterally has weakened the U.S. and made Americans more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
“In short, he’s displayed an inflexible commitment to policy positions that would erode America’s standing in the world," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. "And he’s refused to change course as circumstances have changed.
“I, like many in the Senate, profoundly disagree with his view of America’s role in the world," he said. “I disagree because I believe that his attitude has left America weaker and will leave substantial problems to his successor."