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Iraq crisis: US to send in Special Forces as President Barack Obama signals change of heart

By David Usborne

President Obama has announced a limited first step to put the US military back into Iraq by authorising the deployment up to 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi armed forces contain the uprising of jihadist militants that is threatening to break the country apart.

The plan, drawn up by the Pentagon, was endorsed by the President during an emergency meeting of his full national security team in the White House earlier. The advisers, likely to be made up of special forces personnel, would probably be dispersed in groups to new joint US-Iraqi operations centres in Baghdad and in the north of the country, and would be involved in training Iraqi personnel and helping to gather and analyse intelligence.

While still holding back from air strikes, Mr Obama did not rule them out as a future option. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it,” he said. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, will consult with allies in the Middle East this weekend.

Addressing speculation about the future of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Mr Obama said “it is not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders”. But he went on: “I don’t think it is any secret that right now at least there are deep divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders,” in the country.

Hinting that Mr Maliki may not be the best person to heal divisions, he added that “only those who can govern inclusively” can end the upheaval. “The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak,” Mr Obama said. “The fate of Iraq is in the balance.”

Mr Obama, who came to office on a pledge to withdraw the US from Iraq – a process he completed when the last US soldiers left in 2011 – insisted that the advisers he is sending would not engage in combat.  “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq,” he said in the White House briefing room.

“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 has already been expended in Iraq,” Obama told reporters. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”

Nonetheless, there will be inevitable questions asked about the risk of “mission creep” once the US re-involves itself, however limited at the outset.  Even as the crisis in Iraq has burgeoned, sentiment on Capitol Hill has been running strongly against the US becoming embroiled once more in a sectarian struggle that it may or not be able to influence. It is clear that should any of these personnel find themselves fired upon they would fire back.

Officials in Washington confirmed that the US is already flying fighter jets from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf to help gather intelligence about the size and speed of the advance by rebel fighters, most of them tied to Isis, which is linked to al-Qa’ida. They also acknowledged conversations with Iran about the crisis.

Earlier, Mr Kerry said the contacts with Iran were limited in scope and would not extend to military coordination in Iraq. “We are interested in communicating with Iran,” he said. “That the Iranians know what we’re thinking, that we know what they’re thinking and there is a sharing of information so people aren’t making mistakes.”

The notion of a rapprochement between Iran and the US triggered by the Iraqi insurgency has triggered alarm bells among some of America’s traditional allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia. The Sunni-led Kingdom considers the Shia regime in Iran as its greatest foe. In a statement, the Saudi embassy in London said Riyadh opposed “all foreign intervention and interference in the internal affairs of Iraq. Instead, we urge all the people of Iraq, whatever their religious denominations, to unite to overcome the current threats and challenges facing the country.”

Among those on Capitol Hill giving voice to worries about even a modest deployment of forces was House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi. “I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because that’s a number that has a tendency to grow. And so I’d like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for anything like that,” she said.

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