Obama prepared to send military advisers to Iraq

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — [Adds breaking news update 1:59 p.m.]

President Barack Obama said on Thursday he’s prepared to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to “assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces.”

Obama added that “American forces will not be returning to combat” but will help Iraqis “take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well.”

[Original story moved at 1:47 p.m.]

Up to 100 U.S. special forces — probably Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs — would go to Iraq to advise its military and collect intelligence under a Pentagon plan offered to President Barack Obama, according to several U.S. officials.

An announcement on the plan could come Thursday, though the officials made clear that Obama will decide whether to accept it and when to announce it.

The White House initially said Obama would make a statement on the situation in Iraq at 12:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, after meeting with his national security team. The timing of the statement was pushed back to 1:15 p.m.

Obama is under pressure to help the embattled Iraqi government stave off a lightning advance toward Baghdad by Sunni fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

So far, his administration has ruled out combat troops on the ground in Iraq.

While the special forces in the Pentagon plan would be advisers, officials acknowledge the American special forces would likely face danger based on their location.

Boots on the ground

CNN military analyst Rick Francona called the distinction a loophole, declaring the Pentagon plan amounts to “boots on the ground.”

“This is the first step. This is how you get drawn into these situations,” said Francona, adding that the mission must be clearly defined to avoid greater U.S. military involvement after withdrawing forces in 2011 to end an eight-year war that ousted Saddam Hussein from power.

U.S. officials familiar with the plan, who spoke to CNN on condition of not being identified, said the deployment would begin with several small military teams and grow larger over time.

Teams would be placed around Iraq in the headquarters of Iraqi military brigades and tasked with gathering intelligence on ISIS forces, such as their location, numbers and weaponry, the officials said.

Such information could provide needed intelligence if Obama decides to proceed with airstrikes on ISIS fighters, as requested by Iraq.

Air strikes an option

For days, military sources have said ISIS fighters are dispersed and mixed in with local populations, making them difficult to target precisely with airstrikes.

Francona noted that the U.S. special forces would be “in a great position to call in any air strikes” if Obama decided to use that option too.

On Wednesday, the President met with congressional leaders and later with Secretary of State John Kerry on the Iraq crisis, which has prompted Republican criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the hyper- partisan environment of an election year in Washington.

According to a White House statement, Obama went over efforts to “strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to confront the threat” from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, “including options for increased security assistance.”

Earlier, spokesman Jay Carney spelled out one limit to any help, saying: “The President hasn’t ruled out anything except sending U.S. combat troops into Iraq.”

Congressional authorization

While the White House statement emphasized Obama would continue to consult with Congress, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the President “basically just briefed us on the situation in Iraq and indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for the steps that he might take.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California agreed with McConnell’s assessment, adding she believed congressional authorization for military force in Iraq back in 2001 and 2003 still applied.

A few hours earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said they were working out details on possible U.S. steps that could include airstrikes on Sunni militants advancing through northern Iraq.

They noted that final details, especially for airstrikes requested by the Iraqi government, required more intelligence on the ISIS fighters whose advance has raised the specter of a partitioned Iraq and a broader Sunni-Shiite regional war.

Dempsey and Hagel agreed with subcommittee members that the Iraq crisis amounted to a threat to U.S. interests in the region and, down the road, a possible threat to the U.S. homeland if northern Iraq and neighboring Syria become a safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists.

Ultimate objective

At the White House on Wednesday, Carney made clear that Obama’s “ultimate objective” was to protect national security interests and prevent the region from becoming a safe haven for ISIS extremists.

“Any action that he might contemplate when it comes to … the use of military force will be to deal with the immediate and medium-term threat posed” by the militants, Carney said, noting that 170 U.S. military personnel have been sent to Baghdad to assist in securing embassy personnel inside Iraq, while another 100 moved into the region to “provide airfield management security and logistic support, if required.”

Washington politics

Obama has advocated less unilateral U.S. intervention abroad than his predecessor, GOP President George W. Bush, who led America into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Now Republicans hoping to win control of the Senate and maintain their House majority in the November election have sought to depict Obama’s foreign policy as weak and ineffective. They claim that a U.S. failure to intervene more forcefully on behalf of Syrian opposition forces created an opening for the Sunni militant movement now marching toward Baghdada.

House Speaker John Boehner, who attended the White House meeting with Obama a day earlier, told reporters on Thursday that the Iraq crisis amounted to a broader foreign policy failure by the administration.

“When you look it is not just Iraq,” the Ohio Republican said. “It is Libya, it’s Egypt, it’s Syria. The spread of terrorism has increased exponentially under this President’s leadership.”

Administration officials blame Iraq’s crisis on the failure of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to govern more inclusively over a nation with major sectarian divisions, especially between the Sunni-dominated north and Shia-dominated south.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said al-Maliki needs to be convinced that his retirement would be in his country’s best interest.

“I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” she said this week.

CNN’s Ted Barrett, Jim Sciutto and Laura Koran contributed to this report.

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