Iraqi motorists wait for fuel in Kirkuk as a battle rages in Baiji over control of the oil refinery. (AFP)
Washington, June 19: President Obama said today that the US will deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help its beleaguered security forces fend off Sunni militants, edging the US back into a conflict that Obama thought he had left behind.
Obama also said the US was gathering intelligence on the positions of militant fighters to identify targets, and added, “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it.”
The President said little about the role of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Shia leader whose policies have fuelled the deepening sectarian tensions with Sunni Arab minority. American officials have privately concluded that Maliki cannot head a national unity government.
“It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said, when asked about Maliki. But, he said “right now, there’s too much suspicion, there’s too much mistrust”.
He did, however, sharply criticise the policies of the Iraqi government, which he said had alienated the Sunni minority — a message that he said the US had delivered to Maliki publicly and privately.
“Whether he is Prime Minister, or any other leader who aspires to lead the country, it has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd all feel that they all have the opportunity to advance their interests through the political process,” the President said.
Obama said he still believed that the solution to Iraq’s strife was political, not military. He said he was sending secretary of state John Kerry to Europe and West Asia this weekend to build support among Iraq’s Arab neighbours for a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad.
The President also suggested that there was a constructive role for Iran, Iraq’s Shia neighbour, to play in the crisis if, he said, “it is sending the same message to the Iraqi government that we are sending”.
But he warned that Iran would be a destructive force if it supplied “armed forces on behalf of the Shia”.
Obama emphasised again that he would not send combat troops to Iraq, but he said the US would help the Iraqis “take the fight” to the militants, who he said pose a threat to Iraq’s stability and to American interests, because Iraq could become a sanctuary for terrorists who could strike the US.
“It is in our national security interest not to see an all-out civil war in Iraq,” Obama said to reporters in the White House briefing room, after a meeting of his national security council. The President said the additional military advisers would staff two joint operations centres, in Baghdad and outside, in which the US and Iraqi forces would share intelligence and planning.