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Iraq

Obama Plans To Send Advisers To Iraq, Leaving Air Strikes On Table

Originally published on Thu June 19, 2014 6:12 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama announced today that the U.S. will send up to 300 special forces advisers into Iraq. He says they'll gather intelligence and assist Iraqi security forces. This comes as radical Islamists continue to march toward Baghdad. And as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the president also is not ruling out airstrikes.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Obama is clear about this...

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.

KEITH: He said it more than once as he outlined next steps for the U.S. and Iraq.

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OBAMA: American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq. But we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well.

KEITH: The American presence in Iraq, which had shrunk to that of embassy staff and the security personnel to protect them, is growing again. Additional troops are now in the country to protect embassy personnel, and more are on the way.

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OBAMA: We're prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisers - up to 300 - to assess how can we best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.

KEITH: Senior administration officials say both manned and unmanned aircraft are now patrolling and gathering intelligence over areas of Iraq where the extremist group ISIS has taken control. This information and that gathered by the military advisers on the ground could determine potential targets for airstrikes. Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has asked for U.S. air support, but President Obama isn't ready to go there yet.

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OBAMA: In going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.

KEITH: There is so much to unpack with just that short phrase. Not only do the administration and the military have to sort out where ISIS is and find targets that would avoid civilian casualties, it's not clear the Iraqi military is able to step in and effectively push back. Another challenge for the Obama administration is that Maliki is a problematic political figure who has inflamed sectarian divisions to the point where Iraq teeters perilously close to civil war. But as President Obama put it, it isn't the job of the United States to choose Iraq's leaders.

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OBAMA: They are a sovereign country. They have their own politics.

KEITH: Iraq recently held an election and now is in the process of forming a governing coalition based on those results. Obama insists it must be inclusive, which would be in stark contrast to the way Maliki has governed lately. Maliki, who is Shiite, has been confrontational with the country's Sunnis and Kurds. This, in part, is why ISIS is believed to have had such an easy time sweeping into Sunni areas of the country. To push back, Obama says Iraq needs a unity government.

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OBAMA: Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq's future.

KEITH: Or put another way...

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OBAMA: There's not going to be a simple military solution to this issue.

KEITH: Before the president spoke, Senator John McCain went to the Senate floor and accused him of fiddling while Iraq burns.

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I say to the critics who say do nothing and let them fight it out, you cannot confine this conflict to Iraq and Syria.

KEITH: After the president spoke, McCain continued to press for military action with or without a political solution in Iraq. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.