President Obama talks about his administration's response to a growing insurgency foothold in Iraq, on Fridayat the White House. (Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press)
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President Obama said Friday he is considering military action in Iraq, but will not deploy U.S. troops there.
“We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” Obama declared in a statement from the White House lawn.
However, as Islamic militants continued to advance south toward Baghdad and threaten the American-backed government there, Obama said Iraq “needs additional support to break the momentum of the extremist groups.”
“I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” he said.
A Pentagon official said later Friday that those options will include “kinetic strikes” on the forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, or ISIS, which were moving southward Friday and continuing a stunning three-day campaign that seized major cities, including Mosul, and large portions of the Sunni-dominated north and west.
The ISIS force inside Iraq is not large, estimated at potentially fewer than 1,000 fighters. But their recent military success is driven by the widespread desertion of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were trained by the U.S. military and given billions of dollars worth of sophisticated American equipment.
Obama said those widespread desertions reflect the fact that the underlying crisis roiling Iraq is fundamentally a political problem between the Shiite-led government and its Sunni minority.
“This is not solely or even primarily a military challenge,” Obama said. “The United States has dumped a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces. And we devoted a lot training to the Iraq security forces. The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists but not terrorists who are overwhelming in numbers, indicates that there is a problem with morale, there is a problem in terms of commitment, and ultimately that is rooted in political problems that have plagued the country for a very long time.”
Obama said the ISIS advances this week pose a risk not only to the Iraqi government, but also, potentially, to the U.S.
“Given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well,” he said.
If the Iraqi government wants U.S. assistance, Obama said, its leaders will have to take significant steps toward resolving the political crisis between the Sunnis and Shiites. That likely would include vows to give Sunnis more high-level jobs and sending a larger share of the country’s oil revenue to local governments in predominantly Sunni regions.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation where we are there and keeping a lid on things,” Obama said.
“We can’t do it for them. In the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might prove won’t succeed. This should be a wake-up call. Iraqi leaders have to demonstrate willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people to bring the country together,” Obama said.
“The United States will do our part, but understanding that it is up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems.”
The White House is currently in contact with the Iraqi government, and Obama said he might have a clear plan for military assistance “by the end of the weekend.”
As of Friday morning, the Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2 and the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush remained in the Arabian Sea. The carrier deployed in February, accompanied by the cruiser Philippine Sea, the destroyers Truxtun and Roosevelt and Carrier Air Wing 8.
The Navy has no immediate plans to move the Bush carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty told Military Times on Friday.
Some experts doubt direct U.S. military action would solve the underlying political crisis.
“I don’t think the West has a military role to play here,” said Charlie Cooper, who studies Islamic extremism for the Quilliam Foundation in London. “The situation we ought to hope is one in which [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki lends a hand to the Sunni tribes for political inclusion.”
Staff Writer Meghann Myers contributed to this report