President Obama ordered Thursday up to 300 Special Forces troops to Iraq to advise the struggling Iraqi military and possibly help guide U.S. airstrikes against the extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Obama said the combat-equipped troops would serve in a strictly advisory role and their presence would not violate his earlier pledge against putting U.S. "boots on the ground" in Iraq.
"American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again," Obama said at a White House press room briefing.
Senior administration officials said later that the principal mission of the troops was to assess the situation on the ground and help direct the Iraqi response, but they could also be used to target airstrikes.
Obama referred indirectly to the possibility of airstrikes.
"Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Obama said.
"We have not decided to have these teams call in airstrikes" a senior official said. However, the Special Forces teams could be tasked with directing airstrikes, or advising the Iraqis on how to do it, "if we felt there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities."
A senior official speaking on background at the Pentagon also would not rule out hitting ISIS targets in Syria if Obama ruled that U.S. interests were at stake.
"Clearly, we're focused on Iraq," the official said. "We'd be prepared to do what is necessary if we decided that the situation on the ground required it."
A second senior administration official noted that the U.S. has a wide range of assets along with 30,000 personnel at sea and ashore in the region to call upon if Obama decided to use force in Iraq.
The U.S. has also stepped up intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights with manned and unmanned aircraft, and can now provide round-the-clock coverage over Iraq on ISIS movements, the official said.
Last week, the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush and two support ships moved into the Persian Gulf along with the amphibious ship Mesa Verde with 500 Marines and five tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft aboard.
The 300 troops would deploy to Iraq in addition to the 275 Obama announced earlier this week would be going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and neighboring states to bolster embassy security and assist in evacuations, if necessary.
Initially, the 300 troops would begin arriving in small teams of about a dozen and would work with the Iraqis out of joint operations centers in Baghdad and in a northern city that was not named, a senior official said.
One senior official spoke about U.S. troops possibly embedding with the Iraqis but it was unclear whether that meant out in the field or at the operations centers.
"We'll be trying to help the Iraqis figure out what's going on in their country and effectively respond," the senior official said.
Obama rejected criticism that his withdrawal of troops in 2011 contributed to the current crisis, saying it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who rejected allowing the U.S. to keep a residual force with immunity from Iraqi law.
"That wasn't a decision made by me," Obama said. "That was a decision made by the Iraqi government." Administration officials have also repeatedly said that it was the administration of former President George W. Bush that negotiated the initial agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.
Obama sidestepped on whether he favored Maliki remaining in office. "It's not our place to choose Iraq's leaders," he said, adding that U.S. support was dependent upon Iraqi leaders who can "rise above their differences" to unify the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com