Obama on Iraq: ‘We Will Not Be Sending U.S. Troops Back Into Combat’

The White House is starting to piece together a response after an incredibly chaotic week in Iraq.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Iraq on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on June 13, 2014.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell and Brian Resnick
June 13, 2014, 8:03 a.m.

In a state­ment from the South Lawn on Fri­day, Pres­id­ent Obama made clear that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is deeply wor­ried about the de­teri­or­at­ing situ­ation in Ir­aq, and that he be­lieves the coun­try is un­likely to re­solve the crisis without out­side sup­port.

“We will not be send­ing U.S. troops back in­to com­bat in­to Ir­aq,” the pres­id­ent af­firmed. “But I have asked my na­tion­al se­cur­ity team to pre­pare a range of oth­er op­tions that could help sup­port Ir­aq se­cur­ity forces and I’ll be re­view­ing those op­tions in the days ahead.”

Obama made the re­marks be­fore leav­ing the White House for North Dakota, where he will meet with the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tri­bal Na­tion. 

The Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia, a Sunni mil­it­ant group that was kicked out of al-Qaida in Feb­ru­ary for be­ing too vi­ol­ent, is driv­ing the de­teri­or­at­ing situ­ation in Ir­aq. Its cam­paign in Ir­aq began in the fi­nal days of 2013 in the em­battled An­bar province, and the group has taken over ma­jor Ir­aqi cit­ies with alarm­ing speed in the last week.

The pres­id­ent didn’t an­nounce any im­me­di­ate ac­tion, but rather said that the in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing pro­cess will take a peri­od of days. “People should not an­ti­cip­ate that this is something that is go­ing to hap­pen overnight,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have good eyes on the situ­ation there.”

CNN re­por­ted just be­fore the state­ment that the De­fense De­part­ment is plan­ning to move the air­craft car­ri­er USS George H.W. Bush in­to the Per­sian Gulf to give the U.S. op­tions for pos­sible strikes.

While the pres­id­ent said the U.S. will be mon­it­or­ing the situ­ation closely, he ad­ded that “ul­ti­mately it’s up to the Ir­aqis as a sov­er­eign na­tion to solve their prob­lems.”

Obama did not seem too op­tim­ist­ic about a hasty con­clu­sion to the con­flict. “This is a re­gion­al prob­lem, and it’s go­ing to be a long-term prob­lem,” he said. “And what we’re go­ing to have to do is com­bine se­lect­ive ac­tions by our mil­it­ary to make sure we’re go­ing after ter­ror­ists who could arm our per­son­nel over­seas or even­tu­ally hit the home­land.”

The mil­it­ant group has been eas­ily push­ing its way through ma­jor Ir­aqi cit­ies. “Four of Ir­aq’s 14 army di­vi­sions vir­tu­ally aban­doned their posts, stripped off their uni­forms, and fled when con­fron­ted in cit­ies such as Mo­sul and Tikrit by mil­it­ant groups,” The New York Times re­ports. The U.S. has spent $25 bil­lion train­ing and equip­ping the Ir­aqi mil­it­ary from 2003 to 2012.

“The fact that they are not will­ing to stand and fight and de­fend their posts against ad­mit­tedly hardened ter­ror­ists,” the pres­id­ent said Fri­day, “in­dic­ates that there a prob­lem with mor­ale, a prob­lem in terms of com­mit­ment, and ul­ti­mately that is rooted in the polit­ic­al prob­lems that have plagued the coun­try.”

Obama had said Thursday af­ter­noon that Ir­aq will need more help from the U.S., and that noth­ing was off the table. “I don’t rule out any­thing, be­cause we do have a stake in mak­ing sure that these ji­hadists are not get­ting a per­man­ent foothold in either Ir­aq or Syr­ia for that mat­ter,” he said. White House Press Sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney later cla­ri­fied that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not con­sid­er­ing send­ing ground troops to the coun­try.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has so far denied Ir­aqi Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki’s re­quests for U.S. air strikes against ex­trem­ists.

“This should be a wake-up call,” Obama said Fri­day. “Ir­aq’s lead­ers have to demon­strate a will­ing­ness to make hard de­cisions and com­prom­ises on be­half of the Ir­aqi people in or­der to bring the coun­try to­geth­er.”

Earli­er Fri­day, Ir­aq’s lead­ing Shiite cler­ic, Grand Ayatol­lah Ali al-Sis­t­ani, is­sued a call to arms to fight the Sunni mil­it­ants mov­ing through the coun­try. The pres­ence of elite Ir­a­ni­an troops and the in­volve­ment of Kur­d­ish pesh­merga forces from the north have com­plic­ated mat­ters fur­ther. The in­flux of Shiite and Kur­d­ish mi­li­tias in­to the fight with IS­IS risks turn­ing the con­flict in­to a sec­tari­an fight, com­plic­at­ing any re­sponse that the U.S. could have as the con­flict be­gins to look like a civil war.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­stated the size of IS­IS.

Contributions by Matt Berman and Marina Koren