President Barack Obama said the United States "will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action" to blunt the rapid advance of Islamic militants that have been spreading sectarian violence in Iraq.
The president, speaking Thursday from the White House briefing room, outlined a multipart plan to help prevent Iraq from descending into outright civil war. It includes sending up to 300 military advisers, along with increasing security and surveillance in the war-torn country.
The plan does not entail sending combat troops, Obama emphasized.
"American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again," he said, repeating a point he made last Friday. "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 [have] already been expended in Iraq.
"Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
The administration's goal is to help defeat militant fighters – led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – who have swept through parts of Iraq, seizing control of key cities and assets and threatening the capital, Baghdad.
The group also is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Obama said the U.S. already has been "working to secure our embassy and personnel in Iraq," relocating some and sending in reinforcements to safeguard facilities.
The administration had been weighing whether to press Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a civil war.
'It's not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders," the president said Thursday. Instead, he called for the establishment of a new parliament as soon as possible.
The White House has conditioned any support of the Iraqi government on the prime minister abandoning what Washington sees as destructive sectarian rule. Instead, the U.S. has urged the Shiite prime minister to implement a more inclusive structure, with representation for Sunni and Kurdish factions, too.
Obama, emphasizing the need for diplomacy, said he is sending Secretary of State John Kerry this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe. Kerry, in a news briefing Thursday afternoon with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, said he will meet next week with NATO allies in Brussels.
A consistent message
Vice President Joe Biden, in a phone call to the Iraqi leader on Wednesday, also had driven home the U.S. message that al-Maliki needs to lead all Iraqis, not just Shiites.
Biden told al-Maliki that he must govern in an "inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq's population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq's diverse communities," a White House statement said.
But to date, Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites and volunteers for support, with government officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors.
On Thursday, Maliki announced that Iraq's government is offering volunteers $644 a month to fight alongside the country's security forces in "hot areas" battling the insurgency, and that the government will pay non-fighting volunteers who aid security forces $450 a month. He also promised all volunteers will receive an extra food allowance.
French call for unity government
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday that Iraq needed a government of national unity, with or without Maliki, to counter a Sunni rebel insurgency.
Faulting Maliki for failing to ensure a more inclusive form of government, Fabius said it was critical now to better involve Sunni moderates to avoid them siding with what he described as the “terrorist group” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Pressed in a media interview to say whether Maliki should form the broader-ranging government which U.N. Security Council veto-holder France advocated, Fabius replied: “With or without Maliki, but what Iraq needs is a government of national unity.”
Without such a change, Iraq risked being taken over ISIL, an al-Qaida splinter group that has already overrun the country's north of the country, Fabius told BFM TV in an interview.
“It's the first time a terrorist group is threatening to take control of an entire state,” he said. “I don't want to sensationalize but you've perhaps seen the videos where ISIL people play football with the heads of people they have just assassinated. If these people take control of Iraq you can imagine what that means.”
Security and surveillance
In his comments Thursday, Obama said the United States will further increase its support for security in Iraq to contain terrorist threats.
It already has "significantly increased" its intelligence and surveillance efforts "to get a better picture of ISIL" and its movements in the region, Obama said.
Senior administration officials say measures are intended to signal human rights abusers that they’re being monitored and that their actions will have consequences, Reuters reports.
Obama said the United States would send up to 300 military advisers and set up joint operation centers to share intelligence.
Al-Maliki had asked the president to target militants with airstrikes.
Obama said that his administration had "positioned more U.S. military assets" in the region and that the country "will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action" -- after obtaining congressional support.
A senior defense official told VOA the U.S. military has been ready to direct any of several military options in Iraq.
The military has held back because of Iraq’s deteriorating internal political situation, the official said, adding that any military response must be supported by political actions and goals that would help deal with the crisis.
The United States withdrew its military troops from Iraq in 2011 after eight years of fighting there.
Retired U.S. Army General Jack Keene said Iraq urgently needs an intelligence apparatus like the one U.S. forces had in place before the withdrawal.
"We would download all of our national theater and local intelligence systems, so we have true 'situational awareness,' a military term that tells you what is the enemy doing, where is the enemy: who, what, when, where," Keene said.
"When we pulled out of there in 2011, that screen for Maliki went blank," he added. "We took all of that capability with us. ... We have to put that back."
Role of neighboring Iran
On Thursday, responding to a question, Obama said Iran can play a constructive role in Iraq if it follows the U.S. lead in pressing for the establishment of an inclusive government there.
But the president warned that Iran could worsen the situation if it comes into the conflict solely as an armed force backing Iraq's Shiite-led government.
The United States has deep differences with Iran on several issues, he said, adding that the bloody crisis in Syria partly stems from Iran coming in "hot and heavy on one side."
Obama said if Iran views the region "solely through sectarian frames," Iranians could find themselves fighting in a whole lot of places at the expense of the Iranian economy and the Iranian people.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon and Luis Ramirez contributed from the White House. Some information was provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.