WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Friday US troops will not be sent into Iraq again to combat militants overrunning parts of the country who now threaten Baghdad.
In remarks outside the White House, the US leader said his country would offer assistance to the Iraqi government in its struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) but that would not amount to military intervention.
Calling ISIS "terrorists", Obama said the group's rise posed an international threat and the conflict could affect oil supplies but stressed that the responsibility lay with the Iraqi administration and regional neighbours to stop it.
"We will not be sending US troops back into combat," he said. "We are reviewing a range of other options." Obama said the crisis in Iraq was not a purely military challenge and the Iraqi government needed a "political plan" to combat the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims that is coming to boiling point.
Obama emphasized that the problem was not just a short-term threat to the Iraqi government but also a long-term failure by Baghdad leaders to achieve political reconciliation across sectarian lines. He warned Iraqi leaders that if they want American help, they have to come up with a plan to accommodate minority factions in a meaningful way.
“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” he said.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while we’re there we’re keeping a lid on things” but the political leaders fail to address the underlying fissures dividing Iraqi society.
Obama said he would “consult with Congress” about possible airstrikes in Iraq, but he did not say whether he would seek a vote by lawmakers as he did last fall when he was contemplating airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
In this case, the original congressional authorization for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has never expired, so he would have a different legal basis than he had with Syria.
Although he did not mention it, CNN reported that the Pentagon was moving an aircraft carrier, the USS George HW Bush, to the area.
While Obama ruled out reinserting ground troops, even airstrikes would represent a significant turnaround for a president who was elected in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war and who, once he took office, made pulling out American troops his top foreign policy priority.
The president spoke moments before leaving the White House for a scheduled four-day trip to North Dakota and California. He and the first lady, Michelle Obama, were to visit the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Friday afternoon before heading to Palm Springs, California, where they were planning a relaxed weekend. Aides would not say whether the schedule might change.
Obama has come under criticism from Republican lawmakers, who say that he should have worked harder to persuade Iraq to let him leave a small residual American force after the United States pulled out of the country at the end of 2011, and that he has neglected the burgeoning political crisis there.
Congressman Howard (Buck) McKeon of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the president should be thinking about a more extensive response than a momentary airstrike.
“The White House has a history of ‘considering all options’ while choosing none,” McKeon said in a written statement. “There are no quick-fix solutions to this crisis, and I will not support a one-shot strike that looks good for the cameras but has no enduring effect.”
Instead, he said the president needed “a new strategy for our regional engagement” and should replace his advisers. “The president should also ask himself if his White House national security team is equal to the crisis at hand,” McKeon said. “I don’t believe they are.”