President Obama is sending 300 military advisers to Iraq to bolster government security forces and help establish joint operations centers to combat Sunni extremists.
“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists,” Obama said.
The step suggests the White House is turning aside calls for airstrikes or drone attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, at least for the time being, in favor of more measured steps that could be less controversial in the United States.
It also highlights the administration’s dependence on the Iraq’s government and military to stop ISIS, which took over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit last week as Iraqi forces folded.
Obama said the terror organization “poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to U.S. interests.”
Obama is also dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East to coordinate a response between allies and neighbors of Iraq, as well as facilitate unity efforts between Iraq's warring factions.
And the president said the U.S. would be “prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation requires it.”
The administration has accelerated surveillance and intelligence efforts in the country in a bid to better understand the threat posed by ISIS, Obama said.
A senior administration official said the U.S. was now conducting manned and unmanned surveillance flights "around the clock" over key areas under ISIS control.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled their homes, and extremist militants were battling government forces for control over a crucial oil refinery. In Baghdad, the streets are largely empty as the Iraqi Army braces for an attack on the capital.
U.S. diplomats earlier this week spoke with counterparts in Iran about the situation in Iraq. Iran's government is aligned with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Kerry will not be going to Iran in his trip this weekend.
Obama said he believed Iran could play a "constructive role" in resolving the Iraqi crisis "if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we are."
But the president said that if Iran was coming in to bolster fellow Shiites "solely as an armed force," then "that probably worsens the situation."
While stopping short of calling for the resignation of Maliki, Obama did warn that "only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis."
The president said it was "not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders."
But, he said, there was no "secret that, right now at least, there is deep divisions between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders.
"And as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it's going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats," Obama said. "And so we've consulted with Prime Minister Maliki. And we've said that to him privately."
ISIS has gained a foothold largely because of Sunni frustration with the Maliki government, which has purged moderate leaders from elected office and the armed services.
In recent days, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and other State Department officials have met with Iraqi leaders who could replace Maliki as the nation's prime minister, The New York Times reported.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have all called for Maliki to step down.
Maliki said Thursday he won’t resign in exchange for U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq.
"Our focus needs to be on urgent action — air support, logistic support, counter-intelligence support to defeat these terrorists who are posing a real danger to the stability of Iraq, to the whole region," Maliki spokesman Zuhair al-Nahar told The Guardian.
Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the crisis, but few signals emerged from that meeting about the administration’s plans.
Democratic leaders have given the White House cover to use the 2002 law authorizing former President George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq as the legal authority for new actions.
The advisers being dispatched are in addition to 275 service members the president has authorized to go to Iraq to secure the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The special forces will begin deploying in teams of about a dozen each that will be embedded in the higher levels of the Iraqi military, a senior administration official said. The depoyments will begin "very soon," the official said.
Their first goal will be "getting us a better idea of the state, cohesiveness, and capability of the Iraqi security forces," the official said. They will "assess and advise" Iraqis, but also look to "help give us better visibility into that situation on the ground."
Part of their mission will include whether there are "discrete and targeted" military strikes the U.S. could take that would assist the fight against the Sunni extremists. Officials said that type of action would be more possible once the special advisers were able to report back.
—This story was updatd at 3:30 p.m.