WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama said Monday in a letter to Congress that he would deploy up to 275 troops to Iraq, where sectarian conflict is threatening stability in the region. “This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting US citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat,” the letter said. “This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”
The troops - 170 of which have already arrived in Iraq - were armed for combat, though President Obama has insisted he does not intend for US forces to be engaged in direct fighting. According to a statement from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the troops will relocate staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The State Department announced Sunday that it would move some personnel from Baghdad to other consulates in Iraq and neighbouring Jordan. Carney’s statement reiterated the State Department’s assertions that the “majority” of Embassy staff would stay in place. Obama’s letter comes after Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that he “wouldn’t rule out” talks with Iran about the crisis in Iraq, where al-Qaeda-linked militants are reported to be pushing toward Baghdad.
Meanwhile, according to reports, the US and Iran also held an initial discussion on how the longtime foes might cooperate to ease the threat from the militants, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.
President Obama met with his national security team Monday evening to discuss options for stopping the militants. Officials said the president has made no final decisions on how aggressively the US might get involved in Iraq, though the White House continued to emphasize that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.
Separately, US officials said the White House was considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers to Iraq. Their limited mission - which has not yet been approved - would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation’s north and west as the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011.
Taken together, the developments suggest a willingness by Obama to send Americans into a collapsing security situation in order to quell the brutal fighting in Iraq before it morphs into outright war.
If the US were to deploy an additional team of special forces, the mission almost certainly would be small. One US official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorized only as an advising and training mission - meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but would not officially be considered combat troops.
The White House would not confirm that special operations forces were under consideration. But spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that while Obama would not send troops back into combat, “He has asked his national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces.”