President Barack Obama announced Thursday he was dispatching 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help quell the rising insurgency in the crumbling nation. He also challenged Iraq's embattled leader to create a more inclusive government or risk his country descending into sectarian civil war.
"The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak," Obama said of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose political fate appeared increasingly in play as his rivals launched a secretive effort to replace him.
For army veteran Dennis Sadorra, the news is unsettling. The Bermuda Dunes resident served two tours in Iraq. He remembers how he felt when troops were completely withdrawn in 2011. "We did a job," said Sadorra. "We did it well. We came home. Our guys are safe."
The president stressed American forces will not return to combat. Still, it worries Sadorra. "We walked out of there, knowing that things was done, to send troops back in there, it's almost, it's counterproductive," said Sadorra.
The father-of-two says the decision may upset the families of the men and women who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially those who gave their lives. He fears this is a slipper slope to more U.S. military involvement. He also worries about the safety of the 300 advisers and feels the decision falls too much in the middle ground. "Either we pull this people out, let it become a terrorist state or provide more protection, I think those are the only real options," said Sadorra.
President Obama said he's prepared to take "targeted and precise military action" if the situation on the ground requires it. That's tough for Sadorra to hear, because it's a situation he never thought would need this kind of attention again. "Lot of blood, sweat and tears that happened in Iraq, and to now know that it's another threat, this is a sad, sad time," said Sadorra.
Despite the deteriorating conditions, Obama held off approving airstrikes that the Iraqi government has sought to stem an insurgency that has taken over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and has pressed toward Baghdad. The president said he could still approve "targeted and precise" strikes if the situation on the ground required it, noting that the U.S. had stepped up intelligence gathering in Iraq to help identify potential targets.
Officials said manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day on intelligence collection missions. If the U.S. were to proceed with airstrikes, officials did not rule out the prospect of hitting targets in Syria, where the militant group pressing through Iraq also has deep ties.
Even as Obama left the door open for a direct military response, he said Iraq's future ultimately rests with its leaders' willingness to embrace a more inclusive political system. Al-Maliki has long faced criticism from the U.S. for not giving Iraq's Sunni minority a greater role in the Shiite-dominated government. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq soon to press its government to share more power.