WASHINGTON/TIKRIT, Iraq: President Barack Obama said Thursday he was prepared to take “targeted” military action in Iraq if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of U.S. airstrikes against a militant insurgency.
Obama insisted that U.S. troops would not return to combat in Iraq but said he was sending up to 300 U.S. military advisers to help the country’s beleaguered security forces.
The U.S. president repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the country’s crisis as government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of Iraq’s biggest refinery.
Speaking at a news conference after a meeting with his top national security advisers, Obama said he urged the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take urgent steps to heal the sectarian rift. U.S. officials say the Iraqi leader has failed to do this so far, allowing the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS leading the insurgency to exploit the tension.
“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.”
He stopped short of acceding to Baghdad’s request for the use of U.S. air power.
Senior U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama administration officials have also made clear their frustration with him.
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.
In the meantime, the United States began flying F-18 attack aircraft from the carrier George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as government troops held off insurgents from ISIS and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A government spokesman said around noon that its forces were in “complete control” but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing. Two Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the refinery appeared to remain under rebel control.
A day after the government publicly appealed for U.S. air power, there were indications Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said Washington “does not view such attacks positively,” given the risk to civilians. A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division.
The insurgent advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shiite militias and other volunteers. The government announced that those who joined up to fight in “hot areas” would be paid about $150 a week.
Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city which houses a major Shiite shrine. A local police source said security forces withdrew without a fight when dozens of vehicles carrying insurgents converged on Mutasim from three directions.
Maliki’s own fate seemed increasingly in play with political leaders meeting in recent days behind closed doors and discussing his future, according a Shiite lawmaker.
Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist; and Ayad Allawi, a secular figure who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after Saddam’s ouster.
Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi, a lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago. Another Shiite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister under al-Maliki’s tenure, according to the politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.