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By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday he is prepared to send up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help government security forces fend off the Islamic militants who have seized up to a third of the country.

Speaking to the nation, Obama said the U.S. team would assess how best to “train, advise, and support” Iraqi forces and would take “targeted and precise” actions as necessary.

But he repeatedly said they would not engage in direct combat two years after he withdrew the last U.S. troops from the war in Iraq.

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well,” he said.

Obama’s announcement followed a meeting with his national security team.

The White House has been weighing options for U.S. action over the last week as a surge of Sunni Muslim insurgents captured cities in western and northern Iraq, and appeared headed toward Baghdad, the capital.

Armed clashes were reported Thursday as fighters from the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, and Syria battled over the oil refinery complex at Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad.

Obama considered launching limited drone strikes, but defense officials said they would need more intelligence and time before they could recommend targets.

Obama has said he wants to use the crisis to force long-delayed political reforms in Iraq. Washington has been piling pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-led government to enact changes that could appease the Sunni minority and stave off a wider civil war.

But U.S. officials have also acknowledged that such reforms could be slow, and the U.S. might be forced to act first.

Obama said the United States would not take sides to support one religious sect over another in the widening conflict, and urged Iraqi leaders to seek a political solution to the crisis.

“There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that’s led by the United States,” he said.

But he said the United States does not want to “see all out civil war in Iraq” or the creation of a safe haven that terrorist groups could use for planning and targeting against U.S. installations and allies overseas, “and eventually the homeland.”

Obama also said he would beef up U.S. intelligence gathering operations in the country.

The new U.S. force adds to troops already sent to Iraq this week. Obama on Monday notified Congress of plans to send up to 275 U.S. military personnel “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.”

The administration said 170 U.S. personnel were sent to Baghdad over the weekend from within the U.S. Central Command area, and that 100 others would operate within the region to provide airfield management security and logistical support if it is needed.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the President for not taking action sooner, but few in the GOP ranks have said directly that they would support sending U.S. troops into Iraq or even the use of aerial attacks to slow or stop the advance of ISIS.

Democrats have been resistant to new U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate’s top Democrat, said Wednesday it was not in America’s interest to involve itself in Iraq’s “civil war.”

Photo: Jim Watson via AFP

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