WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday that he would deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help its struggling security forces fend off a wave of Sunni militants who have overrun large parts of the country, edging the United States back into a conflict that Obama once thought he had left behind.
Warning that the militants pose a threat not just to Iraq but also to the United States, Obama said he was prepared to take "targeted and precise military action'' — a campaign of airstrikes that could be extended into neighboring Syria, the New York Times reported, citing a senior administration official.
Obama's military moves — coupled with his pointed warning to Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to quell his country's sectarian fires, and his announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry would embark on a diplomatic campaign — opened a risky new chapter in the president's reluctant engagement with Iraq.
Having captured the presidency in part because of his opposition to the Iraq War and his promise to wind it down, Obama is now returning U.S. soldiers to an unresolved conflict. After struggling to steer clear of the sectarian fault lines that divide Iraq, he is now plunging into yet another effort to unite a fractured country.
"We will be helping Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," a grim-faced Obama said to reporters in the White House briefing room, after meeting with his National Security Council.
The military advisers will have a number of missions, Pentagon officials said. They will try to determine whether, and which, Iraqi defense forces are capable and willing to stand up to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
They will gather intelligence on how big a threat the group poses as well as which militant targets could potentially be struck if Obama decides to order airstrikes. And they will give the United States an assessment of the complex security situation in Iraq, which involves not only the militants, but also Sunni tribes, former Baathists, and Shiite militias.
The first few dozen of the 300 special operations forces are already on their way from bases in the region, officials said, and are expected to arrive in the next day or two. Some will be assigned to Iraqi army headquarters in Baghdad, as well as to individual brigade headquarters.
Other advisers will staff two joint operations centers, which will be used to collate and share intelligence with Iraqi officers, and to do joint planning so that Iraqi forces can better pursue Sunni militants. One will be in Baghdad and the other in northern Iraq, likely in Kurdistan.
The military plan, administration officials said, was largely developed by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, as a commander in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, has street-level experience dealing with insurgencies in Iraq.
On Thursday, stepping up its reconnaissance over Iraq, the United States had 34 piloted and unmanned flights, officials said, double the number of such flights on Tuesday. The piloted flights included F-18s from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, as well as P-3 surveillance planes flying from bases in the region.
Obama's announcement also has implications for U.S. policy in Syria, which so far has been shaped by the president's reluctance to get heavily involved in a complex civil war. Obama would not hesitate to strike militant targets on the Syrian side of the Iraq-Syria border, the New York Times reported, citing a senior official.
As military advisers flow to Iraq, Obama announced that Kerry would leave this weekend for Europe and the Middle East, where he will ask Arab leaders to use their influence in Iraq to push for a multi-sectarian government in Iraq.
After a brief contact between U.S. and Iranian officials about Iraq earlier this week, Obama said Iran, as Iraq's Shiite neighbor, could play a constructive role. But he warned that Iran would be a destructive force if it "came in as an armed force on behalf of the Shia."
"An Iraq in chaos on their borders is not in their interests," Obama said, adding, "Old habits die hard."
As Obama considers airstrikes, he said he would continue to consult with Congress. For now, the White House does not consider the deployment of advisers to constitute "use of military force," said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman.
"Recent days have reminded us of the deep scars left by America's war in Iraq," the president said. "What's clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action."