Obama On Iraq Security: 'We Can't Do It For Them'

Jun 13, 2014
Originally published on June 13, 2014 2:56 pm

President Barack Obama says Iraq’s government must make a sincere effort to address sectarian differences, or else U.S. military help won’t succeed in curbing the insurgency there.

He says, quote, “We can’t do it for them.”

Obama says the U.S. won’t send troops back into Iraq. But he says he’s asked his national security team to prepare a range of other options. He says he’ll review those options in the coming days.

Obama says the risk posed by terrorists in Iraq could eventually pose a threat to U.S. interests, too.

A fast-moving insurgency in Iraq has taken over key cities, raising fears Iraq is slipping back into sectarian chaos following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

Obama spoke just before departing the White House en route to North Dakota.


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This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson. And we have more now on our top story, the escalating crisis in Iraq. President Obama, today, said the U.S. would not be sending troops back into combat to help the Iraqi government fight Sunni militants who have already taken over large parts of the country. And he said he would take several days before deciding what action to take.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We want to make sure that we - we have good eyes on the situation there. We want to make sure that we've gathered all the intelligence that's necessary, so that if, in fact, I do direct and order any actions there, that they're targeted, they're precise and they're going to have an effect.

HOBSON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us from Washington with more on today's announcement from the president. Michele, welcome. And what more did he have to say?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, as you said, he's making clear that there are going to be no troops sent back to Iraq. But he is planning to ramp up security forces, training, give more equipment, provide more intelligence. And there's a possibility of airstrikes. That's something the Iraqi military and the Iraqi government has been asking. But he did say that it's going to take time for him to decide these options. You really heard a very cautious and hesitant president dealing with this issue right now.

HOBSON: Well, and we also heard calls for airstrikes today from his former ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, in an interview with HERE AND NOW. But, Michele, let's listen to more of what he had to say here - and specifically, a message to Iraq's government.


OBAMA: 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 and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. We can't do it for them.

HOBSON: We can't do it for them, Michele.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Jeremy, that's what - you're hearing there the president's frustration with Nouri Al-Maliki. He's the prime minister of Iraq, a Shiite and somebody whose policies have been very divisive in the country. A lot of people here feel that he's disenfranchised Sunnis. And while the - and that's encouraged Sunnis in some parts to support this Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. So the idea that the Obama administration has, and they've had, a diplomat out there in the region, is to try to get this government, once again, to be less sectarian in its politics, to have a united front and have Sunnis and Shias working together to counter this Sunni extremist group.

HOBSON: Now, his critics say that the U.S. should have seen this coming - that the U.S. should never have pulled out of Iraq as it did in 2011 under status of forces agreement that was signed by the Bush administration, by the way, without leaving some troops behind. What about that?

KELEMEN: You know, it's a big argument, now a political argument, here in Washington. The administration did try to negotiate a new status of forces agreement that would have left a small force for counterterrorism and training, the kinds of things that they obviously need right now in Iraq. But Iraq never agreed to it. And there was obviously a lot of pressure on the administration, politically, to pull out of Iraq. So here we are now in this situation where you have this Sunni extremist group that's taking over large parts of the territory. This is something a lot of people here said they feared was going to happen.


KELEMEN: Whether or not a small group training on the ground could've helped that is hard to determine.

HOBSON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, joining us from Washington on a day when President Obama said the U.S. will not be sending troops back into combat, but he's still weighing other options to possibly help the Iraqi government. Michele, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.