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

Obama spoke from the South Lawn of the White House Friday. Obama spoke from the South Lawn of the White House Friday. Charles Dharapak/AP

In a statement from the South Lawn on Friday, President Obama made clear that his administration is deeply worried about what's happening in Iraq, and that he does not have faith that the Iraqi government will be able to handle the crisis alone.

"We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat into Iraq," the president said. "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 (ISIS), a Sunni militant group that was kicked out of al-Qaeda 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 Department of Defense 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.

The president said the U.S. will be monitoring the situation closely, and "will do our part, but understand that ultimately it's up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems."

He didn't seem too optimistic about the future of the conflict. "This is a regional problem, and it's going to be a long-term problem," he said 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."

Though the Iraqi forces outnumber ISIS 40 to 1, 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.

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 said 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. airstrikes against extremists.

Earlier on 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.

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