BAGHDAD (USA TODAY) — Iraqi officials Friday welcomed help from the United States but say they need more than just a few hundred advisers to counter the insurgents taking over huge swathes of Iraq.
"We welcome U.S. assistance but we need more help from the U.S. Air Force — ours is still very fragile and underdeveloped," said Ali Al Musaw, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The danger is serious and the whole world must stand to face up to the terrorists."
On Thursday, President Obama said he was planning to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help train local security forces and target insurgents who have taken over provincial capitals and are on the move toward Baghdad.
Obama stressed he would not send combat troops back to Iraq. Instead, he announced a series of measures intended to improve intelligence-sharing, and surveillance and reconnaissance of the the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS. He did not rule out U.S. airstrikes.
"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Obama told reporters at the White House, adding that he will consult Congress and Iraqi leaders on the issue.
Iraqi leaders have been pleading for U.S. help since the cities of Mosul and Tikrit fell to the insurgents earlier this month. Prime Minister al-Maliki has formally requested U.S. airstrikes.
However, analysts say the U.S., which pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, is in a tricky situation with limited options.
Iraq requests U.S. air power to try to reverse rapid territorial gains by Sunni Muslim insurgents. Natalie Thomas reports. Video provided by Reuters Newslook
"There are enormous limitations to air power," said Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East expert at IHS, a consultancy, in London. "It can be used to prevent Sunni militias from massing and attacking Baghdad, but anything beyond that risks significant civilian casualties and damage to civilian property."
He added: "The Iraq army has faced a pretty significant collapse — it still exists as a military and there are a lot of units that haven't collapsed — but it is now heavily dependent on Shiite militias. So what happens if, for example, the U.S. provides air cover for the capture of a place like Tikrit and Shiite militias step in and commit atrocities?"
Still, locals expressed frustration that the U.S. hasn't taken more decisive action to prevent insurgents from taking over large parts of the country.
"We eagerly listened to Obama's speech," said Yousif Mohammed, 56, a teacher in Baghdad. "I thought he had already made a decision to help Iraqis to face the deteriorating situation in the country — but sending only advisers, it means more violence."
Collins reported from Berlin.