Bloomberg: President Barack Obama is deploying military advisers and reconnaissance planes to help repel a Sunni insurgency in Iraq for at least several weeks and give the country’s Shiite leaders time to form a new government that can command support across sectarian lines. Maliki, an Iran-allied Shiite who took power in 2006, has resisted years of U.S. urging to make the central government more inclusive.
By Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev
President Barack Obama is deploying military advisers and reconnaissance planes to help repel a Sunni insurgency in Iraq for at least several weeks and give the country’s Shiite leaders time to form a new government that can command support across sectarian lines.
In announcing that as many as 300 special operations personnel may work with Iraqi forces to blunt the insurgency that threatens to fracture the country, Obama stressed the limits of the U.S. commitment. He placed the onus on Iraqi leaders to resolve the crisis.
“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,” Obama said yesterday at the White House.
With Sunni militants led by an al-Qaeda breakaway group nearing Baghdad, Obama may have the best chance since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 to pressure Shiite leaders to make concessions to Sunnis and ethnic Kurds who say they have been marginalized.
Insurgents led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, have seized cities north of Baghdad and engaged in a back-and-forth battle to control the Baiji oil refinery, the nation’s largest.
Iraq’s airforce carried out air strikes yesterday that killed 70 ISIL fighters in several villages, the army said in a statement posted on its website.
In another development, ISIL released yesterday 44 foreign workers four days after kidnapping them, al-Mada news agency said. The workers are employed by a Turkish company building a hospital in Tikrit, according to the agency.
The New York Times reported that the U.S. was actively encouraging the Shiites, the dominant group in Iraq’s government, to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At least three other Shiite officials have emerged as possible successors, the Times reported from Baghdad.
Obama yesterday declined to say whether he continues to have confidence in Maliki, whose government the administration blames for inflaming sectarian tensions in OPEC’s second-largest oil producer.
Maliki, an Iran-allied Shiite who took power in 2006, has resisted years of U.S. urging to make the central government more inclusive. That might now change, whether or not Maliki retains his post.
“If the Maliki government is scared enough that their own physical safety and security is threatened, and that they need U.S. military support — that’s our maximum point of leverage,” said Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff to former Defense Secretary and Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta. “I don’t believe that that manifest fear ever existed before.”
Obama told Iraqi leaders they are facing a test of whether they can overcome ethnic and religious differences and keep the country intact.
“We can provide them the space, we can provide them the tools,” he said. “But ultimately, they’re going to have to make those decisions.”
It’s not yet clear whether Maliki will have the support to remain as prime minister as the Iraqi government forms anew following April 30 elections, according to an administration official who briefed reporters after the president’s remarks on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. will be evaluating over the next several weeks whether the advisers and reconnaissance flight are helping the political progress in Baghdad, the official said, as well as whether further military action is needed.
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel this weekend to consult with allies in the Middle East and Europe.
Crude shipments from southern Iraq, where most production is located, has mostly been unaffected by the fighting. Kurds are defending the Kirkuk oilfield in the north. Iraq pumped 3.3 million barrels a day of oil last month.
With the uncertainty imposed by the sectarian strife, Brent crude, which is used to price more than half of the world’s oil, rose to a nine-month high in London of $115.06 a barrel.
Obama, who was elected to office in 2008 on a promise of withdrawing troops from Iraq, repeated yesterday a vow that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”
Act If Needed
He held off ordering air strikes, which have been sought by Maliki’s government. The U.S. is “prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
Pentagon officials said that not all of the 300 special forces advisers Obama authorized necessarily will be sent to Iraq. If they do, most might be stationed in the joint operations centers, usually in Baghdad, and not in the field advising Iraqi troops.
The advisers, most of whom are already in the region, will work with Iraqi units at the headquarters and brigade level, administration officials said in the briefing. Their initial task will be an assessment of the Iraqi forces.
While their mission isn’t to engage in combat, they will have the right to defend themselves if attacked, one official said. The U.S. now has enough aircraft flying over Iraq to provide 24-hour coverage of areas were the ISIL is active, the official said.
The initial deployments are going to be much more about “advising and supporting” than training, said Robert Martinage, a former Pentagon principal deputy assistant secretary for special operations.
“The primary focus will be on organizing and planning operations,” said Martinage, now an analyst with the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The commandos “will collect intelligence about the situation on the ground, including the disposition and location of ISIL fighters and Iraqi military units, as well as gauging popular sentiment in the Sunni regions,” he said.
Reaction in Congress after Obama’s remarks largely fell along party lines.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi joined other lawmakers from her party in urging Obama to proceed cautiously.
“You have to be careful sending special forces because it’s a number that has a tendency to grow,” the California representative told reporters at the Capitol. “And so I’d like to see the context, purpose, time-line and all the rest for anything like that.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called dispatching advisers “a reasonable step.”
“We should be extremely cautious about taking any actions beyond that step, such as air strikes,” Levin said in a statement.
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two frequent critics of Obama’s policies, said in a joint statement that Obama was right in outlining the wider threat posed by the ISIL. They said the U.S. shouldn’t wait for Iraq’s political atmosphere to improve before taking more aggressive action.
“We are deeply concerned that the President continues to make political change in Iraq the prerequisite for greater U.S. military and other actions that could begin reversing the momentum of ISIS and improving the security situation in the country,” they said.