The US will send 300 military advisers to help Iraq’s government deal with a steadily worsening security situation, President Barack Obama announced today.
The announcement follows the deployment of some 275 soldiers to protect the US Embassy and two consulates general in Iraq, meaning that nearly 600 US troops could soon be on the ground. Sunni Islamic militants have seized stretches of the country, precipitating a sectarian crisis, but Obama insisted that American servicemen would not be assuming a combat role.
“Let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” he said.
However, military action such as airstrikes, which the US has been considering for some time, have not been ruled out. The US, Obama said, could take “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
US officials cited by the Associated Press said that the advisers would be mostly Green Berets working closely with Iraqi security forces units. Obama described their role as assessing how to most effectively train and support the Iraq forces as they take on militants led by al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that the force would “help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces, and increase their capacity to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” — an alternative translation of the militant group’s name.
Iraq’s leaders requested that the US launch airstrikes on Sunni militant positions earlier this week. The US began flying F-18 fighter jets from the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance.
The US government had reportedly been considering demanding that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resign as a condition of assistance, in order to lessen the likelihood of a full-blown Sunni uprising. Many Sunnis consider Maliki’s governance of the country to be corrupt and divisively sectarian, and are disgruntled as a result. However, Obama said it wasn’t the US’s “job” to choose Iraq’s leaders.
Meanwhile, the battle for control of the Baiji oil refinery 130 miles north of Baghdad entered a third day as Iraqi armed forces supported by helicopter gunships fought militants. The refinery, which is Iraq’s largest, produces around 300,000 barrels per day when operational.
A government spokesman said that Iraqi forces were in control of the refinery at around midday local time, but a local eyewitness reported that fighting continued and the majority of the facility was still under militant control, Reuters said. Control of the facility is now split between the two sides, according to AP.
It is not the first time that contradictory reports have emerged from the battle. Yesterday, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a senior Iraqi army spokesperson, said that government forces had fought off the attack, killing 40 militants. However, an official speaking to Reuters from inside the facility said that ISIS actually controlled three quarters of the territory in and around the refinery, including production units, the administration building, and four watchtowers.
The refinery and the millions in revenue it can generate would be a huge prize for the ISIS-led militants and another huge blow to Maliki, whose government has so far appeared incapable of stopping the advancing insurgents.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck