US President Barack Obama speaks about Iraq on June 19 at the White House. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Thursday that he plans to send about 300 US military advisers to Iraq to assist the government in its fight against extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have taken over vast swaths of the country’s Sunni-dominated west and north.
The United States is already flying manned and unmanned aircraft over Iraq to collect intelligence, a senior administration official said. As part of the ramp up in US aid, American drones could eventually be used to hit ISIL targets — even if some of those targets reside in Syria.
Speaking after the president’s announcement, the official said that any direct action by American forces against ISIL “would be in a more targeted and focused way if we felt there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities.”
But the official cautioned that the “several dozen” US special forces troops heading to Iraq over the coming weeks will first have to perform an assessment of the capabilities and “cohesion” of the Iraqi forces, as the purpose of the deployment is “a capacity-building mission on the ground and a broader intelligence mission” to help the Iraqis do the fighting themselves.
The American forces will begin work at the ministerial level to help create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning, but some teams could also operate as low as the brigade level with Iraqi forces in Baghdad and in northern Iraq.
Asked if the special forces teams will act as ground controllers directing Iraqi airstrikes, the official said, “we have not decided to have these types of teams calling in airstrikes. However, it is the case that one of the things you can do in a joint operations center in partnership with the Iraqis is share information and help them develop targets”
In his remarks, Obama downplayed the growing US military involvement in Iraq, saying the deployment of US troops is meant to help the government in Baghdad focus on political reconciliation between the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the restive Sunni population and the Kurds in the north.
“There’s no military solution inside of Iraq,” he said, “certainly not one that is led by the United States. But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process, a more capable Iraqi security force and counterterrorism efforts that deny groups like ISIL a safe haven.
Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon Thursday morning, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said, “we also know that in the long term, we need a sustainable solution for the whole region.
“That is, we have to integrate with diplomatic and political solutions for neighboring countries of the whole region,” she said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is also meeting this afternoon in a closed door hearing with Pentagon and Defense Intelligence Agency officials to get the latest on the situation in Iraq.
The reaction from Capitol Hill has been slow, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi striking a skeptical tone at her weekly press conference, telling reporters, “I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because that’s a number that has a tendency to grow. And so I’d like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for anything like that.”
Conversely, Tim Kaine, D-Va., said after the president’s remarks that the dispatch of advisers “is a prudent move to assess the ISIL threat, and I look forward to continued close consultation with the administration on any potential military action.” ■
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.