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President Obama discusses Iraq at the White House on June 19, 2014 / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - President Obama said Thursday he is planning to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces and target insurgents who have taken major cities and are threatening the capital in Baghdad.

While stressing that he will not send combat troops back to Iraq, Obama also announced a series of plans to improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the insurgent army, and perhaps pave the way for eventual U.S. airstrikes.

"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Obama told reporters at the White House, adding that he will consult Congress and Iraqi leaders in that eventuality.

While "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq," Obama said that the U.S. "will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well."

After a meeting with national security advisers, Obama also announced that he will dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to the region for diplomatic efforts that include demands for a more inclusive government in Iraq.

While some allies have called for removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama told reporters that "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders."

In addition to military advisers, Obama said he is planning to create "joint operation centers" with the Iraqi military to help coordinate plans and designate possible targets among the militants. The United States already has around-the-clock surveillance of the insurgent forces, officials said.

The Iraqi government has formally requested U.S. airstrikes against the invading forces.

Iraqi soldiers and Sunni militants have been battling for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. By late Thursday, the two sides held different parts of the refinery.

The United States has an interest in preventing civil war in Iraq, Obama said, and in making sure the war-torn nation does not become a new haven for terrorists planning to attack the U.S. and its allies.

But the president said that, ultimately, it's up to Iraq to solve its problems, and American assistance will be supportive in nature.

Citing the nearly 4,500 American lives lost after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Obama - a longtime critic of the Iraq war - said the United States needs to ask itself "hard questions" about when and whether to take action abroad. The president said his focus is: "What is in the national security interests of the United States of America?"

The military advisers to be deployed to Iraq in the coming weeks will not be combat troops, and "I think we always have to guard against mission creep," Obama said.

The U.S. will first send "several dozen" servicemembers to Iraq and supplement them with additional waves in the coming weeks, according to a senior defense official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the operation and requested anonymity.

Part of their job will be an initial assessment of the readiness of Iraq security forces, some of which collapsed in the face of recent assaults by militants, the official said. These forces also will assess the capabilities of the insurgents and lay the groundwork for possible airstrikes.

The American teams will be mostly Army Special Forces, which has a specialty in advising foreign militaries. While their intent is to not go into combat, they will be in field with Iraqi combat units and could be exposed to fighting.

The forces will have the legal protections needed to shield them from local laws, the official said, and the United States and Iraq are close to an agreement on this point.

Two Republican critics of Obama's Iraq policies - Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - called the sending of advisers "a positive step," but said that more needs to be done.

"We must act now to help Iraqis arrest their country's descent into chaos, or the current crisis may soon spiral further out of control," McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.

Administration officials on Thursday briefed members of Congress on Iraq.

"We've got to be very, very cautious before we do anything," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling Obama's plan a "reasonable approach."

Obama's national security meeting at the White House came a day after he reviewed the Iraq situation with members of the bipartisan leadership in Congress.

The administration is also making diplomatic moves. It is urging al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, to put together a more inclusive new government that involves Sunnis and Kurds.

While not calling for al-Maliki's ouster, Obama said that "the test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak. ... The fate of Iraq hangs in the balance."

Obama aides have said they may also approach Iran - a supporter of al-Maliki's government - as part of regional diplomacy, but only if Iran can play what Obama called "a constructive role."

Said the president: "All of Iraq's neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Obama plans to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq

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