Obama on Iraq: We Will Be Prepared to Take Targeted Military Action

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq,” Obama said, “but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people.”

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an East Room event at the White House June 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama signed a presidential memorandum on 'reducing the burden of student loan debt.'
National Journal
Brian Resnick and Kaveh Waddell
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Brian Resnick and Kaveh Waddell
June 19, 2014, 9:41 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced Thursday af­ter­noon that the U.S. will be step­ping up its in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing and mil­it­ary sup­port to help the Ir­aqis, but will not em­ploy com­bat forces out­right to deal with the crisis in the coun­try.

However, he said the U.S. “will be pre­pared to take tar­geted and pre­cise mil­it­ary ac­tion if and when we de­term­ine that the situ­ation on the ground re­quires it.”

In the last few weeks, a Sunni mil­it­ant group known as the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia has taken a num­ber of ma­jor cit­ies in the north­ern and west­ern re­gions of Ir­aq. The group’s mil­it­ary cam­paign has car­ried IS­IS fight­ers with­in strik­ing dis­tance of the Ir­aqi cap­it­al of Bagh­dad, and re­cent gains in north­w­est Ir­aq have brought the group closer to its goal of es­tab­lish­ing con­trol over a con­tigu­ous area span­ning the Ir­aqi-Syr­i­an bor­der.

“Amer­ic­an forces will not be re­turn­ing to com­bat in Ir­aq,” Obama said, “but we will help Ir­aqis as they take the fight to ter­ror­ists who threaten the Ir­aqi people, the re­gion, and Amer­ic­an in­terests as well.”

Pres­id­ent Obama met with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers Wed­nes­day to dis­cuss op­tions for Amer­ic­an as­sist­ance in Ir­aq. In the meet­ing, the pres­id­ent prom­ised to keep Con­gress in­formed as the situ­ation evolves. In a state­ment after the meet­ing, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said the pres­id­ent “is not cur­rently con­sid­er­ing ac­tions that would re­quire con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al but was very clear that he would con­sult with Con­gress if that changed.”

The pres­id­ent framed Amer­ic­an ac­tion in Ir­aq in terms of na­tion­al se­cur­ity rather than in terms of hu­man­it­ari­an con­cern. “It is in our na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests not to see an all-out civil war in­side of Ir­aq,” Obama said. “Not just for hu­man­it­ari­an reas­ons but be­cause that ul­ti­mately can be destabil­iz­ing throughout the re­gion.” The spread of this con­flict would pose a threat to re­gion­al al­lies, the pres­id­ent said, and to the glob­al en­ergy mar­ket.

Ir­aq’s em­battled prime min­is­ter, Nuri al-Ma­liki, may be on his last legs. With Amer­ic­an sup­port, Ir­aqi can­did­ates, Sunni and Shiite both, are man­euv­er­ing to re­place the Shiite prime min­is­ter, whose sec­tari­an policies have been blamed for the cur­rent chaos in the coun­try.

“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Ir­aq’s lead­ers,” Obama said Thursday. “It is clear, though, that only lead­ers that can gov­ern with an in­clus­ive agenda are go­ing to be able to truly bring the Ir­aqi people to­geth­er and help them through this crisis.” This echoes Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s po­s­i­tion that any U.S. in­ter­ven­tion would be fo­cused on the wel­fare of the Ir­aqi state, not on prop­ping up the cur­rent prime min­is­ter.

On Wed­nes­day, Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani an­nounced that Ir­an “will not hes­it­ate” to in­volve it­self in Ir­aq in or­der to pro­tect sites holy to Shiite Muslims. Ir­an is a ma­jor back­er of Ma­liki’s gov­ern­ment in Ir­aq.

Obama warned that Ir­a­ni­an in­volve­ment could be harm­ful if it took on a sec­tari­an tint. “If Ir­an is com­ing in solely as an armed force on be­half of the [Shiites],” Obama said, “then that prob­ably wor­sens the situ­ation and the pro­spect for gov­ern­ment form­a­tion that would ac­tu­ally be con­struct­ive over the long term.”

The U.S. and Ir­an have dis­cussed the pos­sib­il­ity of co­oper­at­ing in Ir­aq to drive back IS­IS forces, but the two are less likely to share in­terests if the U.S. turns away from sup­port­ing Ma­liki. Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers have spoken out against co­oper­at­ing with Ir­an: House Speak­er John Boehner and House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi both warned against any col­lab­or­a­tion.

But for Obama, co­oper­at­ing with Ir­an de­pends on the de­cisions of its lead­er­ship. “Just as Ir­aq’s lead­ers have to make de­cisions, I think Ir­an has heard from us,” Obama said.

This story is break­ing and may be up­dated.

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