Words by Bridget Foster.
In response to the growing crisis in Iraq, President Obama held a news conference Thursday afternoon outlining the steps that he was prepared to take to protect US interests in the region and support the Iraqi government, steps that do not include sending combat troops back into the country. Recognizing the legitimate threat posed by the civil fighting between Iraqi security forces and an extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Obama said the first priority is to secure the US embassy and personnel in Iraq.
“As President, I have no greater priority than the safety of our men and women serving overseas. So I’ve taken some steps to relocate some of our embassy personnel and we’ve sent reinforcements to better secure our facilities,” said Obama.
Though the Iraqi government has called on the US to conduct airstrikes against the militants, Obama has ruled that out for now, choosing instead to “increase intelligence and surveillance inside Iraq” to determine where ISIL is operating and where they may be headed. Obama said US assets would be positioned in the region to develop information “about potential targets associated with ISIL… 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.”
Obama has ordered a small contingent of Special Forces to Iraq to assess how to “train, support, and advise” the Iraqi security forces. The US will also increase support to the Iraqi security forces by creating joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to “share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL.”
“The best response… will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces, like the Iraqis, take the lead,” said Obama. “The US will not pursue military action to support one sect inside Iraq over another.”
Obama also said the US will lead diplomatic efforts to involve Iraq’s neighbors in supporting stability in the region, as it is in their best interests as well as America’s. “…all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists,” said the President.
He emphasized that the problem in Iraq is not one that can be solved by military action but rather through the political process. Iraq’s government, headed by Nouri Al-Maliki, effectively leaves out two of Iraq’s major ethnic groups, the Sunnis and the Kurds.
“Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future,” said Obama. “…Right now…there [are] deep divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders.”
Asked if he wished he had left a residual force in Iraq instead of pulling out all of the troops, Obama responded that he had offered a modest force to stay behind to continue training and advising Iraqi security forces but a requirement for immunity was declined by the Iraqi government.
Read the full transcript of the press conference here.