US President Barack Obama speaks at the White House about
the Iraq situation. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama says he is sending up to 300 US
military advisers to Iraq but stressed the need for a political
solution to the country's crisis as government forces battled
Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery.
Speaking at a news conference after a meeting with his top
national security advisers, Obama said he was prepared to
take "targeted" military action later if deemed necessary,
thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of US air
strikes against a militant insurgency. But he insisted that
US troops would not return to combat in Iraq.
Obama urged the Shi'ite government of Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki to take urgent steps to heal the sectarian rift,
something US officials say the Iraqi leader has failed to do
so far and which an al Qaeda splinter group leading the Sunni
insurgency has exploited.
"We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by
sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the
kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in
Iraq," Obama told reporters. "Ultimately, this is something
that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
Obama, who withdrew US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011,
said the United States would significantly increase support
for Iraq's beleaguered security forces, including sending up
to 300 military advisers. But Obama stopped short of acceding
to Baghdad's request for the use of US air power.
Senior US lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and
Obama administration officials have also made clear their
frustration with him.
While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying "it's
not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he avoided any
expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime
minister when asked by a reporter whether he would do so.
In the meantime, the United States began flying F-18 attack
aircraft from the carrier George H.W. Bush on missions over
Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents. The carrier
was ordered into the Gulf several days ago.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the
capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the
Shi'ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its allies who had
stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national
A government spokesman said around noon (0900 GMT) that its
forces were in "complete control."
But a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing. Two
Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were
unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the
refinery remained under rebel control.
A day after the government publicly appealed for US air
power, there were indications Washington is sceptical of
whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian
deaths that could further enrage Iraq's once-dominant Sunni
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the
United States "does not view such attacks positively," given
the risk to civilians. A Saudi source said that Western
powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the
region, that what was needed was political change, not
outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has
widened under Maliki.
Video aired by Al-Arabiya television showed smoke billowing
from the Baiji plant and the black flag used by ISIL flying
from a building. Workers who had been inside the complex,
which spreads for miles close to the Tigris River, said Sunni
militants seemed to hold most of the compound in early
morning and that security forces were concentrated around the
refinery's control room.
The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday,
one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters
had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.
Baiji, 40 km (25 miles) north of Saddam Hussein's home city
of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past
week by an array of armed Sunni groups, spearheaded by ISIL,
which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, staff shut down the plant, which makes much of
the fuel Iraqis in the north need for both transport and
ISIL, which considers Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority as
heretics in league with neighbouring, Shi'ite Iran, has led a
Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major
city of Mosul last week as Maliki's US-armed forces
The group's advance has only been slowed by a regrouped
military, Shi'ite militias and other volunteers. The
government announced on Thursday that those who joined up to
fight in "hot areas" would be paid about $150 a week.
Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of
Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city
which houses a major Shi'ite shrine. A local police source
said security forces withdrew without a fight when dozens of
vehicles carrying insurgents converged on Mutasim from three
ISIL, whose leader broke with al Qaeda after accusing the
global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now
secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect
putting it well on the path to establishing its own
well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a
centre for terrorism.
The Iraqi government made public on Wednesday its request for
US air strikes, 2-1/2 years after US forces ended the
nine-year occupation that began by toppling Saddam in 2003.
Asked whether Washington would accede to that appeal, US
Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC only that "nothing is
off the table."