Obama to send 300 army advisers to Iraq

President insists move will not lead to a return of US combat troops to Iraq

Volunteers in the newly formed “Peace Brigades” participate in a parade near the Imam Ali shrine in the southern holy Shia city of Najaf, Iraq, yesterday. Photograph: Jaber al-Helo/AP

Volunteers in the newly formed “Peace Brigades” participate in a parade near the Imam Ali shrine in the southern holy Shia city of Najaf, Iraq, yesterday. Photograph: Jaber al-Helo/AP

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 01:00

US president Barack Obama has said the US plans to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help halt the advance of radical Islamic fighters but pledged that this would not lead to a return of combat troops to the country.

“American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” he said at the White House as he announced that the US would share intelligence and co-ordinate plans with Iraqi government forces in “joint operation centres” in Baghdad and northern Iraq.

Mr Obama left open the option of launching air strikes against fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The group, born of an al-Qaeda off-shoot, has seized major cities in northern Iraq.

After meeting his national security advisers, Mr Obama said the US was developing information about “potential targets” associated with the militants and may take military action against them.

“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” he said, adding that he would “consult closely” with the US Congress and leaders in Iraq and the Middle East before launching any strikes.

A senior Obama administration official said after the president’s comments that “discreet and targeted” air strikes were a possibility but were not imminent as further preparations had to be taken on the ground.

The president said the US had stepped up surveillance and intelligence on Isis’s activities to understand better the threat they pose.

Surveillance flights

A senior administration official said the US was flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights “around the clock” over key areas under the control of the Sunni militant extremists.

The president also plans to dispatch US secretary of state John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East to co-ordinate a response with allies and neighbours of Iraq and to push for a diplomatic solution.

Mr Obama called again on the Shia-led government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to takes political steps to heal “deep divisions” by including Sunnis in the running of the country, but stopped short of calling for new leadership.

“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” he said. “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 the crisis.”

The Obama administration had hinted that it would prefer a new government in Iraq that could unite the Shia majority and Sunni minority along with the Kurds in the north.

An increasing number of members of Congress and US allies in the Middle East had pushed the White House to withdraw its support for the Maliki government. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US senators Dianne Fe- instein and John McCain have called on Mr Maliki to resign.

Iran role

Mr Obama said Iran, a Shia power in the region, could play a “constructive role” in stemming sectarian violence in Iraq if Tehran had the same intentions as Washington: to encourage Mr Maliki’s government to reconcile with Sunni Muslims.

Three years after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq following an eight-year conflict that cost almost 4,500 US lives, Mr Obama said the decision not to maintain a US military presence after 2011 was not his. The Iraqi government refused to grant the US legal protection, a requirement to maintain troops in any foreign country.