The question was asked politely. The answer was swift and unequivocal.
“There will be no boots on the ground in Iraq,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told 200-plus Marines at a question-and-answer session Tuesday.
Hagel was quick to deny any suggestion that his decision, announced earlier in the day, to send 130 additional U.S. military personnel to the embattled city of Irbil in northern Iraq signals “mission creep.”
To protect Americans and others in Irbil, President Obama last week authorized airstrikes against advancing Sunni militants. A series of airstrikes has targeted artillery and convoys of the militant Islamic State.
The extra personnel arrived Tuesday and are assigned to “take a closer look and give a more in-depth assessment of where we can continue to help the Iraqis with what they’re doing and [with] the threats that they are now dealing with,” Hagel said.
The job of fighting the militants, who have ravaged a large swath of northern Iraq, lies with the Iraqi forces, Hagel said.
“As the president has made very clear, we’re not going back to Iraq in any of the same combat dimensions we were once in,” he said.
From 2003 to 2011, 345 Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton were killed in Iraq, a toll second only to the 509 killed from the Army’s Ft. Hood. An additional 115 Marines and sailors were killed from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms.
The “disintegration” of the Iraqi force and its poor showing in western Iraq can be attributed to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Hagel said.
Iraqi forces “lacked the will to fight, lacked confidence in their leaders,” he said. “The Iraqi government has to take considerable responsibility for that.”
“Leadership matters,” Hagel said.
He joined Obama in expressing a hope that Maliki’s designated successor will be more inclusive in his governing style, bringing in Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shiites.
The 130 U.S. personnel, who include an unspecified number of Marines, brings to 380 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to assess the danger posed by the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and how best the U.S. can bolster the Iraqi forces.
Their assessment has yet to be made public, although the U.S. has begun providing weaponry to the Kurds, an ethnic group long at odds with the government in Baghdad. Irbil is the Kurdish capital.
Hagel’s stop at Camp Pendleton came as he was returning to Washington from a nine-day trip to talk to military and civilian leaders in Germany, China, India and Australia.
As the Marines waited for Hagel to arrive, Lt. Gen. David Berger, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, explained the role of the secretary of Defense. One piece of Hagel’s biography seemed to particularly impress the Marines: Hagel saw combat in Vietnam as an enlisted man in the Army.
“Vietnam was my father’s war,” one young Marine said.
Hagel’s comments about the Islamic State during his trip indicated a racheting-up of rhetoric by the Obama administration. In an interview weeks ago, Obama had suggested that the Islamic State is a kind of “junior varsity” as a fighting force; that description is no longer being used.
In announcing the airstrikes last week, Obama said the Islamic State is engaged in genocide against Christians and others who do not share their views.
During a news conference in Sydney with Australian Defense Minister David Johnston, Hagel said the Islamic State poses a threat “not just to the United States but to the civilized world.”
At Camp Pendleton, he called the Islamic State one of “the most brutal, barbaric forces we’ve ever seen in the world today” and provided a succinct description of modern affairs.
“The world is exploding all over,” he said.