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U.S. to Send Up to 300 Military Advisers to Iraq, Obama Says

U.S. to Send Up to 300 Military Advisers to Iraq, Obama Says

By Alexis Simendinger - June 20, 2014

President Obama has ordered “up to” 300 American military and other specialists into Iraq to “train, advise and equip” the Iraqi military to battle Sunni jihadists who have seized control of Iraqi towns as part of a religious-based sectarian clash.

The president said his decision Thursday to deploy intelligence units and other advisers to Iraq was intended to be limited as to scope and objectives. And he acknowledged Americans’ deep misgivings about risking more U.S. lives in a country American forces exited in late 2011.

But Obama set no time limits on the new mission and said air strikes may follow the intelligence-gathering inside Iraq. Senior administration officials said teams of U.S. personnel, already operating in the region, would work in and just outside Baghdad, and in northern Iraq beginning “very soon.”

“Recent days have reminded us of the deep scars left by America's war in Iraq,” said Obama, who won his bid for president in 2008 in large measure because of his pledge to extricate the United States from the war in Iraq.

Six years later, Iraq remains a delicate touchstone in U.S. politics -- and one with a partisan component. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say the Iraq war was a mistake, according to the Gallup Organization, posing policy and political dilemmas for Obama and his party as they labor to boost turnout for midterm elections in November. Across party lines, Americans tell pollsters they oppose new military adventures in Iraq.

“Many veterans carry the wounds of that war [in Iraq], and will for the rest of their lives,” the president told reporters minutes before awarding the Medal of Honor to a wounded Marine who fought in Afghanistan. “Here at home, Iraq sparked vigorous debates and intense emotions in the past, and we've seen some of those debates resurface,” he added.

Obama said he decided to help battle a Sunni group affiliated with al Qaeda, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), because of the risks posed to Americans and European allies.

The president conferred Wednesday with congressional leaders from both parties, and said he would advise Congress of future air strikes in Iraq. Lawmakers and administration advisers agreed that Obama possesses the authority to deploy U.S. assets to Iraq without new legislation, and without a security agreement with Iraq to legally safeguard U.S. military personnel.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she worried about the potential of a small deployment of U.S. military specialists to springboard into a larger commitment. “I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because it's a number that has a tendency to grow,” she told reporters.

Obama said he understood the worries.

“We always have to guard against mission creep,” he said. “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. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”

The outcome of targeting ISIL is uncertain. Violence in Iraq threatens the viability of its government and is tangled with U.S. foes in Syria and Iran, as well as the Kurds in northern Iraq who want autonomy, and allies throughout the region.

The mission, Obama said, is to reckon with “the dangers of ISIL over the long term [while] developing the kinds of comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that we're going to need to deal with this issue. And that's going to involve some short-term responses to make sure that ISIL is not obtaining capacity to endanger us directly, or our allies and partners.”

Obama insisted that U.S. forces “will not be returning to combat in Iraq,” but these assurances centered on U.S. ground troops, not military attacks from the air.

“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.

Such action was described by senior administration officials as strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft, designed to thwart the effectiveness of ISIL wherever it may operate. Attacking ISIL in theory would not be confined to territory within Iraq’s borders, but could encompass Syria, where many jihadist fighters originated, senior administration officials said.

“We would not restrict our ability to take action as necessary to protect the United States,” one official told reporters in response to a question about potential targets across the border, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is waging war with his own people.

Officials also said Obama’s deployments would not be conditioned on first securing a pledge from the Iraqi government to form a unity government, although the administration is strongly urging the government to expand Sunni inclusiveness. The Baghdad government twice in as many weeks formally requested U.S. air strikes as Iraqi security forces crumbled when faced with well-organized and deadly foes.

Although the Obama administration has made no secret of its misgivings about decisions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to marginalize Sunnis in Iraq, the president and his aides stressed the United States is not choosing political “winners and losers” in a sovereign country.

Obama earlier this week sent 270 combat-ready forces to protect U.S. personnel at the Baghdad embassy. Approximately 170 of those troops are being sent to Iraq, and 100 will operate outside Iraq. The Pentagon also deployed war ships and destroyers to the area in the Arabian Sea. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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