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.