WASHINGTON (AP) — Inching back into a fight he tried to leave behind, President Barack Obama announced yesterday he was dispatching 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help quell the rising insurgency in the crumbling nation. He also challenged Iraq’s embattled leader to create a more inclusive government or risk his country descending into sectarian civil war.
“The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak,” Obama said of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose political fate appeared increasingly in play as his rivals launched a secretive effort to replace him.
Less than three years after Obama heralded the end of America’s war in Iraq, he insisted he was not sending the military back into combat. Still, when coupled with previously announced steps, the president’s actions could put about 600 additional U.S. troops in the midst of Iraq’s deeply unstable security situation.
Underscoring the volatility was a tenacious fight over Iraq’s largest oil refinery north of Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships battled Sunni militants for a third day on Thursday for control of the refinery, the loss of which would be a devastating symbol of the government’s powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West.
Despite the deteriorating conditions, Obama held off approving airstrikes that the Iraqi government has sought to stem an insurgency that has taken over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and has pressed toward Baghdad. The president said he could still approve “targeted and precise” strikes if the situation on the ground required it, noting that the U.S. had stepped up intelligence gathering in Iraq to help identify potential targets.
Officials said manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day on intelligence collection missions.