President Obama said Thursday that he will send as many as 300 military advisors to help Iraq's beleaguered armed forces "take the fight" to Islamist insurgents, although he insisted that only a political solution can resolve the crisis.
Several special operations teams will initially deploy in and around Baghdad and in northern Iraq to assess the threat from militants while the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies step up drone surveillance and aerial reconnaissance operations, officials said.
"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," Obama said in the White House briefing room after meeting with his top national security advisors.
Officials said U.S. airstrikes are not imminent, partly because commanders need better intelligence from the front lines of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has seen Sunni militants from an Al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, deal humiliating defeats to the armed forces of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.
But with more U.S. warships and other military assets moving into the region, "we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Obama said.
The deepening U.S. involvement, 2 1/2 years after Obama withdrew U.S. troops and ended America's war in Iraq, comes as government forces struggled for a third day to oust insurgents from Baiji, Iraq's largest oil refinery, about 125 miles north of Baghdad.
Loss of the complex would be a strategic and symbolic blow for Maliki's government, and a major victory for the militants. They already have seized oil fields in eastern Syria, as well as Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and threaten to march on Baghdad.
Obama justified his decision by saying the United States does not want "all-out civil war in Iraq" or creation of a haven that militants could use to plan and target U.S. facilities and allies overseas "and eventually the homeland."
Although Obama said "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he and his aides made it clear that they are open to alternatives to Maliki, a Shiite who has marginalized minority Sunnis and ethnic Kurds and amassed absolute control over Iraq's security establishment during his eight years in power.
Obama urged the new Iraqi parliament, which was elected in April, to form a unity government as soon as possible that "represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis."
"There's no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States," he said. "But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process."
In a sign of Obama's frustration, U.S. envoys in Baghdad have met with senior Iraqi politicians who want to remove Maliki from power and replace him with a leader who would reach out to Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Administration officials have not called publicly for Maliki to step down, wanting to avoid charges of fomenting another leadership change in Baghdad 11 years after the U.S.-led military invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Maliki has shown no sign of relinquishing power.
"The United States' mood nowadays is toward replacing Maliki, but the decision has to come from Iraqis themselves," said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, a secular Sunni politician who meets often with U.S. officials.
The State Department denied that it was trying to engineer Maliki's ouster but said the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Robert S. Beecroft, and senior State Department official Brett McGurk had urged Iraqi politicians in meetings this week to quickly form an inclusive government.
"They made clear that it is up to the people of Iraq to choose their leaders, but it needs to be done quickly given the crisis that Iraq faces," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Analysts say the U.S. must tread lightly because Iran, Maliki's most important sponsor, has not signaled that it wants him to leave office.
Tehran reportedly dispatched Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite paramilitary Quds Force, to help coordinate Iraq's military response to the insurgents, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed this week to defend Shiite holy sites in Iraq from "killers and terrorists."
"Washington can't oust Maliki without Tehran's consent, and they [Iranians] are unlikely to ditch their man unless his replacement is someone closer to their interests," said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert based in Jordan with the nonpartisan Atlantic Council.
"Removing Maliki without his consent might create a power vacuum in Baghdad," he said. "But as long as he insists in remaining in power, the White House ought to not go down this road. Haven't they learned already? Since when is removing or calling for the removal of a leader created more stability in the Middle East, and not less?"
Obama warned Iran not to send its armed forces into Iraq to bolster the Shiites. "If its view of the region is solely through sectarian frames, they could find themselves fighting in a whole lot of places," he said.
Obama said the U.S. advisors will create joint military operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning against the insurgents.
He said the advisors will "assess how we can best train, advise and support" Iraqi forces, starting "with the perimeter around Baghdad and making sure that it's not overrun."
U.S. officials said the U.S. will initially deploy several special operations teams of about a dozen members each. The teams will be embedded among Iraqi military officers at their headquarters, and at the brigade level, the officials said.
The teams will first set up two joint operations centers and provide advice and recommendations to Iraqi commanders and the Pentagon.
"We're going to start small and then we'll see what we learn from that," said one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military plans.
Another senior administration official said the president won't condition the help on specific actions by Maliki or other Iraqi leaders, but will seek to support "the formation of a broad-based and inclusive Iraqi government."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the advisors "will assess the situation on the ground, help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces and increase their capacity to counter the threat" from the militant forces.
Republicans on Capitol Hill offered careful praise of Obama's plan, wary of calling for action that would send U.S. troops into another war.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the White House strategy "a reasonable step." He said further U.S. involvement should depend on Maliki's government "making concrete changes in the way they're governing the country."
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said Maliki's government must become more inclusive "or he may no longer be president."
Other lawmakers appeared resigned to bad choices after more than a decade of war.
"In Iraq we're facing a crisis with no good solution," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We cannot allow ISIS to turn Iraq into a no man's land where terrorist groups could flourish and threaten another 9/11. At the same time, we cannot risk a repeat of the Bush administration's disastrous invasion."