June 20, 2014 - 12:23 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday, June 19, he was sending up to 300 military advisers to Iraq but stressed the need for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis as government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery, Reuters reported.
Speaking after a meeting with his national security team, Obama said he was prepared to take "targeted" military action later if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of airstrikes to fend off a militant insurgency. But he insisted that U.S. troops would not return to combat in Iraq.
Obama also delivered a stern message to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the need to take urgent steps to heal Iraq's sectarian rift, something U.S. officials say the Shi'ite leader has failed to do and which an al Qaeda splinter group leading the Sunni revolt has exploited.
"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 told reporters. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
Obama, who withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, said the United States would increase support for Iraq's beleaguered security forces. But he stopped short of acceding to Baghdad's request for the immediate use of U.S. air power against Islamist insurgents who have overrun northern Iraq.
The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.
Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him. Some U.S. officials believe there is a need for new Iraqi leadership but are mindful that Washington may not have enough clout to influence the situation, a former senior administration official said.
While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister when asked by a reporter whether he would do so.
Warning that Iraq's fate "hangs in the balance," Obama said: "Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together."
The U.S. president also said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East starting this weekend for talks he hoped would stabilize the region. A U.S. official said: "Kerry is expected to go Iraq soon," but did not give a date.
Even as Obama announced his most significant response to the Iraqi crisis, the sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, was transformed into a battlefield, Reuters says.
Troops loyal to the Shi'ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
ISIL, which considers Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighboring Shi'ite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki's U.S.-armed forces collapsed.
The group's advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi'ite militias and other volunteers. The government announced on Thursday that those who joined up to fight in "hot areas" would be paid about $150 a week.
ISIL, whose leader broke with al Qaeda after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect putting it well on the path to establishing its own well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a center for terrorism.
The U.S. secretary of state, Kerry, played down the extent of possible cooperation with Iran, the main Shi'ite power, which backs Maliki, saying Washington wanted communication on Iraq with its old enemy to avoid "mistakes" but would not work closely with Tehran.
Obama challenged Iran to play a constructive role in Iraq and not come in "solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia."