Acknowledging that hard-won American gains in Iraq are at risk, President Barack Obama said on Friday that he won’t be sending U.S. ground troops back there to battle al-Qaida-inspired extremists but warned he could soon unleash military strikes there.
“We have enormous interests there, and obviously our troops and the American people and the American taxpayers made huge investments and sacrifices in order to give Iraqis the opportunity to chart a better course, a better destiny,” Obama said.
“We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” he promised on the South Lawn of the White House, with his Marine One helicopter as the carefully chosen backdrop. “But I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq's security forces. And I'll be reviewing those options in the days ahead.”
Obama sternly warned the government in Baghdad that America needs Iraq's leaders — notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — to embrace sweeping reforms to win back minority Sunnis and starve the insurgency of any popular support.
“This should be a wake-up call,” the president admonished. “In the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action — including any assistance we might provide — won't succeed.”
American officials for years have pressured al-Maliki, who is from his country’s Shiite majority, to address deep grievances among Iraqi Sunnis. Instead, the prime minister has cracked down on that community, which for years fed the insurgency against U.S. forces.
“Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis an opportunity to claim their own future. Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that's created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government, as well as their security forces,” Obama said.
Obama underlined that the latest wave of extremists, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, had roots in Syria’s civil war.
“This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem,” he said. “And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland — we're going to have to combine that with what is a very challenging international effort to try to rebuild countries and communities that have been shattered by sectarian war. And that's not an easy task.”