The news coming out of Iraq grows more disturbing every day.
Three years after President Obama pulled the last active combat troops out of the country, Iraq is facing a dangerous armed rebellion from a well-funded, brutal al-Qaeda affiliate that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL, also known as ISIS). The insurgent militia is bent on creating an Islamic state -- or caliphate -- in the region through the use of extreme violence against its perceived enemies.
So far, the militant fighters have seized a number of small towns, as well as Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. And as of Wednesday, they briefly captured a huge oil refinery just 130 miles outside of the capital, Baghdad. While it's unknown exactly how many fighters belong to ISIL, the group's deadly, bloody march south rightfully has many feeling alarmed. On Thursday (June 19), President Obama vowed again to help calm tensions using any means available -- short of sending in U.S. ground troops.
In a a White House briefing on Thursday, the president gave an update on his administration's plan after he met with his National Security team. "American combat troops are not going to fight in Iraq again," the president said with emphasis.
What will happen is this: The U.S. embassy and personnel in Iraq will be secured; there'll be a "significant" increase in surveillance and intelligence-gathering to get a better idea of what is going on inside Iraq; increased support to Iraqi security forces and a joint operations center set up in Baghdad, where the U.S. and Iraq can share intelligence and additional equipment for Iraq's army.
Also, Obama said he'll send a "small" number of military advisors, up to 300, to train and support Iraqi forces. He also said there could be "targeted and precise military action" if, and when, that becomes necessary.
Shi'ite Volunteers In Iraq
What Iraq Wants
Iraq's government has made a formal request for the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIL. No word on that, but here's still the possibility of sending in a limited number of special forces troops to assist with intelligence-gathering on potential targets and to train the not-yet-ready-for-battle Iraqi army.
Michael O'Hanlon of the non-partisan public policy organization the Brookings Institution told MTV News that efforts by ISIL to build a caliphate have been going on for three years in Syria, but have picked up dramatically in Iraq this year. While some commenters have blamed President Obama's withdrawal of troops in 2011 for making the country an easy target for the recent violence, O'Hanlon said the situation is more complicated than that.
"President Obama made that call [to withdraw troops] when the Iraqis refused to offer U.S. troops legal protections," he said. "As such, I think it was mostly the Iraqis’ decision (and mistake), not ours."
Obama essentially said the same thing Thursday, explaining that the White House offered to leave a "modest" residual force to train Iraqi forces in 2009, but couldn't do that when Iraq's new government failed to agree on a core requirement for a U.S. troop presence anywhere: a promise that they'd be safe from prosecution for their actions in combat.
"Despite that decision we have given them continued advice and support," Obama said, noting that he had also urged the political compromises necessary to form a functioning government.
And while the horrifying images coming out of the country have led some to wonder (and worry) that the U.S. could possibly be drawn back into a third war in Iraq, O'Hanlon said that seems unlikely.
"Not in a major way, but perhaps in limited ways," he said of the possibility that U.S. forces could engage the insurgency again, more than three years after leaving. The key is pressuring the Iraqis to form a united government that's more inclusive and representative of the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations. With a weak national defense and resentment from Sunnis and Kurds over Prime Minister Nouri al-Mailiki's government -- it's dominated by Shi'ites -- the rebel forces have had a relatively easy time marching toward Baghdad in a country where divisions based on your particluar sect or group cut deep.
Who's In Charge?
The current insurgency is being led by a shadowy figure named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was previously aligned with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri before the two men split allegiances over ISIL's ultra-violent tactics.
While Obama doesn't wish to be drawn back into Iraq, he said last week that he wouldn't “rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.”
As an example of ISIL's violent tactics, the Institute for the Study of War recently released an assessment of what it said was the annual report from ISIL on the militant group's actions. The report catalogs the number of assassinations, suicide bombings, knifings and other attacks carried out by Al-Baghdadi's forces, which have reportedly doubled in Iraq over the last year to 9,540.
And, unlike a terrorist organization, which looks to create chaos and undermine the state's legitimacy, ISIL appears focused on more military goals like holding the territory it takes from Iraqi forces.
Displaced Iraqis line up at a temporary camp for those fleeing violence in northern Iraq
In which case, Obama said, "Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come up with a political plan for Iraq's future ... national unity meetings have to go forward." But most important, he said, "there is no military solution inside Iraq, certainly not one led by the United States."
Should We Be Worried At Home?
Though some have raised the possibility of ISIL turning its attention from Iraq to our homeland, O'Hanlon said that it's a possibility -- but a somewhat remote one. "[It's not so imminent] so much as to lose sleep," he said. "However, enough so that the public takes politicians seriously when they propose various possible options for expanded U.S. roles in Iraq in the future."