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Obama to send scores of military advisers to Iraq


WASHINGTON (MCT) -- President Barack Obama said Thursday he will send as many as 300 military advisers to help Iraq's beleaguered armed forces "take the fight" to Islamist insurgents, although he insisted only a political solution can resolve the crisis.

Several special operations teams initially will deploy in and around Baghdad and in northern Iraq to assess the threat from militants while the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies step up drone surveillance and aerial reconnaissance operations, officials said.

"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," Obama said in the White House briefing room after meeting with his top national security advisers.

Officials said U.S. airstrikes are not imminent, partly because commanders need better intelligence from the front lines of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has seen Sunni militants with an al-Qaida splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, deal humiliating defeats to the armed forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.

But with more U.S. warships and other military assets moving into the region, "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 said.

The deepening U.S. involvement, two-and-a-half years after Obama withdrew U.S. troops and ended America's war in Iraq, comes as government forces struggled for a third day to oust insurgents.

The insurgents are battling for control of Baiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery, approximately 125 miles north of Baghdad.

Loss of the complex would be a strategic and symbolic blow for al-Maliki's government, and a significant victory for the militants. They already have seized oil fields in eastern Syria, as well as Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and threaten to march on Baghdad.

Obama justified his decision by saying the United States does not want "all-out civil war in Iraq" or creation of a haven militants could use to plan and target U.S. facilities and allies overseas "and eventually the homeland."

Although Obama said "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he and his aides made it clear they are open to alternatives to al-Maliki, a Shiite who has marginalized minority Sunnis and ethnic Kurds and amassed absolute control over Iraq's security establishment during his eight years in power.

Obama urged the new Iraqi parliament, elected in April, to form a unity government as soon as possible that "represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis."

"There's no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States," he said. "But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process."

In a sign of Obama's frustration, U.S. envoys in Baghdad have met with senior Iraqi politicians who want to remove al-Maliki from power and replace him with a leader who would reach out to Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Administration officials have not called publicly for al-Maliki to step down, wanting to avoid charges of fomenting another leadership change in Baghdad 11 years after the U.S.-led military invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Al-Maliki has shown no sign of relinquishing power.

"The United States' mood nowadays is toward replacing Maliki, but the decision has to come from Iraqis themselves," said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, a secular Sunni politician who meets often with U.S. officials.

The State Department denied it was trying to engineer al-Maliki's ouster but said the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Robert S. Beecroft, and senior State Department official Brett McGurk had urged Iraqi politicians in meetings this week to quickly form an inclusive government.

"They made clear that it is up to the people of Iraq to choose their leaders, but it needs to be done quickly given the crisis that Iraq faces," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Analysts said the U.S. must tread lightly because Iran, al-Maliki's most important sponsor, has not signaled it wants him to leave office.