The US president said the personnel would be deployed to train and advise Iraqi government forces – but he insisted American troops would “not be returning to combat in Iraq”.
In an address from the White House, Mr Obama responded to the rising threat from extremist, al-Qaeda-inspired militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
Outlining a series of military support measures, the president said the US would be forming joint operation centres in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and co-ordinate planning to confront the rebel threat.
Intelligence services will be “significantly” increased to build up a better picture of what is happening on the ground, said Mr Obama. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires. If we do, I will consult closely with congress and leaders in Iraq,” said the president, raising the prospect of precision air strikes.
Mr Obama did not call for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign, despite senior US politicians demanding that the leader, a Shia Muslim who has pursued sectarian policies, should step down. Mr Obama said it was not the job of the US to choose Iraq’s leaders.
But he added that whoever is prime minister must make sure all sectarian groups feel they can advance their interests through the political process. The president emphasised that, in the long run, it was up to the Iraqi authorities to solve the crisis engulfing their country, insisting there was “no military solution”.
It was also announced that US secretary of state John Kerry is being sent to the Middle East and Europe to push a “diplomatic effort” to deal with the crisis.
“Just as all Iraq’s neighbours must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbours have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists,” Mr Obama added.
“Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future.”
The president was adamant that US troops would not be returning to combat in Iraq.
Asked if the measures announced last night could lead to an escalation of military action, he replied: “We always have to guard against mission creep. American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again. 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. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”
Mr Obama made his statement the day after Mr al-Maliki, who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive, went on a diplomatic offensive, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation’s disaffected Sunnis and Kurds. His conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a “lesson”, came as almost all of Iraq’s main communities have been drawn into violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.
The US withdrew the last American troops from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. The withdrawal came after Washington and Baghdad were unable to reach an agreement to extend the US troop presence.
But faced with a growing Sunni insurgency, Iraq’s government has asked the US to launch airstrikes to contain Isis, which fought in the brutal Syrian civil war and has gone on to seize Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq. Isis has also launched an assault on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery in Baiji, north of Baghdad.
Last night, as fears grew that Britons had been radicalised in Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted “everything that can be done is being done” to tackle the threat. Reports have suggested 450 people from Britain have joined the ranks of the extremist Islamist militant group and concerns have been raised that they could come back and attack the UK.
Speaking in Downing Street after talks with Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Prime Minister said: “The work of the security intelligence and policing services is very much now being focused on to this area and has been for sometime, and I’ve chaired meetings in Whitehall to make sure every department is involved in that and everything that can be done is being done.”
He added: “We will continue to take all and every step we can to stop people travelling to Syria, to prevent them coming back if they have been radicalised and to keep the country safe.”
Yesterday, former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell emphasised the seriousness of the situation. The North East Fife MP said: “No-one should be in any doubt that the threat from radicalised British citizens who have gone to Syria to support the terrorists there and in Iraq is real.”
Activity on social media has suggested Isis extremists have been ordered to return to Britain. Among those claiming on Twitter to have been fighting with Isis was Abu Rashash Britani, who tweeted that his leaders had told him to return to Britain.
He tweeted to another jihadist: “I my brother intend to go back to #UK under the order of our Ameer Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi #foreignpolicy.”
He also tweeted: “#usa manned & unmanned aircrafts flying over #iraq. They never learn, Bi’idnillah we will attack u from within brace yourself for another 9/11”.
Tim Ripley: Isis seems to have learned the lesson of 9/11 that attacking western nations directly is counterproductive
On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron was emphatic in his assessment of the threat posed by the Isis Jihadi group in Iraq, saying “the people in that regime – as well as trying to take territory – are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom”.
This stark assessment caught many analysts by surprise. Up to now Isis had been ranked as a “regional threat” to western interests and allies in the Middle East rather than a direct threat to the UK homeland. The Prime Minister did not give any details to back up his claims.
Isis has made no direct threats against Britain or other Western countries or been caught launching terrorist attacks. UK and US intelligence agencies believe Isis has 2,000-3,000 fighters from European countries so they could make an ideal “Trojan Horse” force to return to their home counties and spread mayhem.
The implication of Mr Cameron’s comments was that things had moved on from when the threat was assessed as just a handful of British-born fighters returning home to commit random acts of violence. Many analysts doubt an organised Isis terrorist threat to the West. First, Isis has shown no sign of having what could be called an “internationalist agenda”. Unlike Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, Isis has focused its propaganda efforts against its local opponents rather than proclaiming global jihad. On the ground, it seems preoccupied with fighting president Assad’s army in Syria and toppling prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.
This had led to a pre-occupation in western security agencies on “blow-back”, in which individual fighters return to their home towns and wage “self-started” attacks or are so psychologically damaged by their time in Syria that they commit acts of mayhem. The spectre is of a repeat of the brutal murder of Lee Rigby last year rather than 7/7-style co-ordinated bombing attacks. Intelligence agencies and the police have been able to easily round up 65 former jihadis because they made little effort to cover their tracks – even flying back to Heathrow from Syria on their own passports. The suggestion is that if they were bent on launching terrorist outrages they would have made a more determined effort to hide their identities.
The most likely reason Isis has not yet attacked western countries is the likely reaction. When bin Laden’s followers struck in 2001, it prompted a massive US reaction that cleared out al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Isis seems to have learned that lesson and realised that attacking the west directly is counterproductive. It has benefited from war weariness in the US and Britain over the past five years, giving it the freedom to rebuild it forces that has allowed to get to the gates if Baghdad. So why re-waken the sleeping giant?
• Tim Ripley is a defence journalist and commentator