Obama says US to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq

President will take targeted military action ‘if necessary’ but rules out combat troops

Iraqi Shia Turkmen fighters take part in an intensive security deployment in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. Photograph: Reuters/stringer

Iraqi Shia Turkmen fighters take part in an intensive security deployment in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. Photograph: Reuters/stringer


US president Barack Obama said today the United States would send up to 300 military advisers to support Iraqi forces confronting an al Qaeda-inspired insurgency and was prepared to take targeted military action if it was necessary.

But the US president, speaking to a news conference after meeting with his national security team, insisted: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”

“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,” he said.

“Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”

Mr Obama said the military advisers would support Iraqi security forces and create joint operation centres in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the insurgents.

He said the US military forces had beefed up intelligence gathering over Iraq in recent days and would be prepared to take “targeted and precise military action” if the situation required.

He said Secretary of State John Kerry would go to the Middle East and Europe this weekend to lead diplomatic efforts to promote stability in the region.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein. It withdrew its troops from the country in 2011, handing over responsibility for security to the government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

US officials have been critical of Mr Maliki’s performance as prime minister, saying he has worsened the country’s sectarian divisions. Some senior US lawmakers have said Mr Maliki should step down to make way for someone able to work more effectively across sectarian lines.

Mr Obama has said the Iraqi government must take steps to heal the political rift among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds before he will agree to any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, an al Qaeda splinter group.

Mr Obama said the administration had discussed these issues with Mr Maliki privately.

He said it was not the job of the United States to pick Iraq’s leaders, but added: “There is deep division between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders and as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats.”

The president has taken several steps in response to the Iraq crisis.

He told Congress on Monday the United States was deploying up to 275 military personnel to provide support and security for the US Embassy and US citizens in Iraq.

The United States also is flying F-18 attack aircraft launched from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents who have seized part of the country, a US official said today. US officials have said while Mr Obama is considering manned or unmanned air strikes, Washington lacks the kind of precise intelligence it needs to conduct the strikes effectively.

Meanwhile, Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country’s biggest refinery today as prime minister Nuri al-Maliki waited for the US response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.

The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shia-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.

A government spokesman said at about noon (0900 GMT) that its forces were in “complete control”.

But a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing. Two Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the refinery remained under rebel control.