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Middle East

Obama sends troops to protect US missions in Iraq

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-06-17

US President Barack Obama notified Congress on Monday that up to 275 troops are being sent to Iraq to provide support and security for US personnel and the American embassy in Baghdad.

About 170 of those forces have already arrived and another 100 soldiers will be on standby in a nearby country until they are needed, a US official told AP.

While Obama has vowed to keep US forces out of combat in Iraq, he said in his notification to Congress that the personnel moving into the region are equipped for direct fighting.

And separately, three US officials told AP 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 the beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts as the Sunni insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011.

The moves come at the White House wrestles with an array of options for helping Iraq repel the insurgency, which has captured large swathes of territory collaring Baghdad, the capital of the Shiite-led government. In a rare move, US officials reached out to Iran on Monday to discuss ways the long-time foes might help stop the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The White House said the forces authorised for support and security would include US Marines, Navy and Army personnel.

“They’ve got a double role – as well as protecting the embassy in Baghdad; it’s also to help this partial evacuation of embassy staff who’ve been sent to American diplomatic outlets inside Iraq and to Amman, Jordan,” FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther reported from Washington DC.

The forces are entering Iraq with the consent of that country’s government, the White House said.

Standby troops and special forces

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said those troops on standby could “provide airfield management, security, and logistics support, if required”. They could work with embassy security teams or operate as a stand-alone force as directed.

Officials would not say where the standby soldiers would be based, but it is likely they would be in Kuwait, which was a major basing ground for US troops during the Iraq war.

If the US were to deploy an additional team of special forces, the mission would almost certainly be small. One US official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorised 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 as 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”.

It’s not clear how quickly the special forces could arrive in Iraq. It’s also unknown whether they would remain in Baghdad or be sent to the nation’s north, where the insurgency has captured large swathes of territory collaring Baghdad, the capital of the Shiite-led government.

The troops would fall under the authority of the US ambassador in Baghdad and would not be authorised to engage in combat, another US official said. Their mission would be “non-operational training” of both regular and counter terrorism units, which the military has in the past interpreted to mean training on military bases, the official said.

However, all US troops are allowed to defend themselves in Iraq if they are under attack.

Obama caught as Iran steps in

Obama made the end of the war in Iraq one of his signature campaign issues, and has touted the US military withdrawal in December 2011 as one of his top foreign policy successes.

But he has been caught over the past week between Iraqi officials pleading for help – as well as Republicans blaming him for the loss of a decade’s worth of gains in Iraq – and his anti-war Democratic political base, which is demanding that the US stay out of the fight.

While the White House continues to review its options, Iran’s military leaders are starting to step into the beach.

The commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, General Ghasem Soleimani, was in Iraq on Monday and consulting with the government there on how to stave off insurgents’ gains. Iraqi security officials said the US government was notified in advance of the visit by Soleimani, whose forces are a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that in the past has organised Shiite militias to target US troops in Iraq and, more recently, was involved in helping Syria’s President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.

In fighting on Monday, the insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, and an Iraqi army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.

In the short term, the US and Iran both want the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stabilised and the Sunni-led insurgency stopped. But in the long run, the United States would like to see an inclusive, representative democracy take hold in Iraq, while predominantly Shiite Iran is more focused on protecting Iraq’s Shiite population and bolstering its own position as a regional power against powerful Sunni Arab states in the Gulf.

The United States and Iran held "brief discussions" on the crisis Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

But any future talks with Iran would be focused on ways that Tehran could help press Maliki’s government to be more inclusive and treat all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups equally, the State Department has said.

Maliki's sidelining of the Sunni minority has helped exacerbate internal Iraqi divisions and helped fuel the Sunni-led insurgency.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Maliki's leadership last week, Obama spoke of Baghdad’s failure to be inclusive of its Sunni communities as he discussed the possibility of a US military intervention.

“Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities," Obama said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2014-06-17

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