WASHINGTON -- Citing the "huge investments and sacrifices" Americans have made in Iraq, President Barack Obama said today that he has asked his national security team to prepare a range of options to help Iraqi security forces stop rapidly advancing Sunni insurgents who have overrun much of the country's north, control most of Anbar province and are now threatening the capital, Baghdad.
"I'll be reviewing those options in the days ahead," Obama said in a statement delivered on the south lawn of the White House, but he stressed "we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq."
Obama said assistance for Iraq's security forces is necessary because of the "significant gains" Sunni fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have made in the past several days, taking over the country's second-largest city, Mosul, and continuing to push southward toward the Iraqi capital while overrunning Tikrit and several other towns and threatening several of Iraq's Shiite shrines.
"Iraqi security forces have proven unable to defend a number of cities, which has allowed the terrorists to overrun a part of Iraq's territory, and this poses a danger to Iraq and its people," the president said. "And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat, eventually to American interests as well."
Obama indicated that any decision on U.S. assistance to Iraq is still at least several days away, would be made in close consultation with Congress, and would have to include Iraq's leaders working to resolve the sectarian differences that he said underlie the current situation.
"The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they're prepared to work together," he said. The government led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi military are largely Shiite, while the insurgents are primarily Sunni.
With diplomatic efforts set to intensify, Obama said, it will take several days "to make sure that we've gathered all the intelligence that's necessary so that if, in fact, I do direct an order [or] any actions there, that they're targeted, they're precise, and they're going to have an effect."
Even so, two and a half years after the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, Obama made clear the United States, after having made "enormous sacrifices" in Iraq, including the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans, is "not going to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there, we're keeping a lid on things."
The president also said that despite the billions of dollars the United States spent to train Iraq's security forces during the eight-year war, the current collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the Sunni insurgency indicates Iraq's military continues to have deep-rooted problems.
"The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists, but not terrorists who are overwhelming in numbers, indicates that there's a problem with morale," he said. "There's a problem in terms of commitment, and ultimately, that's rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country for a very long time."
The United States already has supplied Iraq with military equipment and intelligence. After meetings with his national security council yesterday, Obama decided the United States needed to take action to help, but he said that "ultimately, it's up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems."