U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility Wednesday that U.S. troops might be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an administration official on President Barack Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State.
Kerry made the comment during a news conference after a day of meeting with Iraqi officials, who he said hadn’t requested or shown any desire to have U.S. troops or forces from any nation in Iraq to confront the Islamic State, the extremist organization that’s now in control of more than a third of the country’s territory.
Kerry reiterated that Obama has said no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, before adding, “Unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”
That formulation hasn’t been used previously by administration officials in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State, and it’s sure to feed concerns that the United States may be making a greater commitment to a new conflict in the Middle East than it first intended.
In announcing the authorization for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in August, Obama said they’d be limited to preventing Islamic State attacks on the Yazidi religious minority and to stopping any Islamic State advance on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Since then, the U.S. has provided close air support for Kurdish troops fighting to recapture the Mosul Dam, Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim militias breaking the Islamic State siege of Amerli and Sunni Muslim tribesmen battling to push Islamic State forces from towns near Haditha.
Kerry didn’t elaborate on what dramatic change might prompt the U.S. to commit ground forces, and it wasn’t clear whether his statement reflected administration policy. The White House declined to provide on-the-record reaction to the comment, but Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who chaired the foreign affairs and intelligence committees when he was a member of the House, called it “a loophole a mile wide.”
Kerry said Iraqi leaders had promised him that they’d move swiftly to resolve the grievances of the Sunni and Kurdish communities, both of which are unhappy with the way the new Iraqi government was assembled.
Kerry praised the newly elected government, headed by veteran Shiite politician Haider al Abadi, and said he’d received assurances that addressing the grievances of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds was a top priority of the government.
He said Obama had sent him on the unannounced visit “to underscore to the people of Iraq that we will stand by them in this effort . . . and overcome the threat they face today.”
In the meetings with Abadi, President Fouad Massoum, Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari and parliamentary Speaker Salim al Jabouri, Kerry said, he also discussed ways to reconstitute the Iraqi army, which collapsed in June under attack from Islamic extremists.
All, but Abadi in particular, were focused on creating a national guard in Iraq’s major regions, an institution favored especially by Kurds, who have the peshmerga militias, and Sunnis, who chafe at operations carried out by the Shiite-dominated national army.
Kerry said the national guards, who’d be integrated into the national security forces, would “protect the population of Iraqi cities and towns and deny space” to the Islamic State, which has introduced a brutal reign of terror where it’s conquered.
He said that all of Iraq’s new leaders had agreed on the importance of enhanced regional autonomy, resolving the issue of territories disputed between Kurds and Arabs, and resuming budgetary payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had cut.
Kerry said he was very encouraged by his meetings. “I’ve been here many times and in many meetings, and never in any of those meetings seen the unanimity, without complaint, of a sense of direction and commitment to the concept of inclusivity, and of addressing the unaddressed issues of the past eight years or more,” a reference to the divisive rule of Maliki.
Kerry had arrived here as part of a hurriedly arranged Middle Eastern tour that coincided with Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday night on how he intends to combat the Islamic State insurgents.
Kerry then flew back to Jordan and was to travel Thursday to Saudi Arabia, where he’ll urge leaders of Arab nations to form a coalition to fight the Islamic State, which also controls more than a third of the territory in neighboring Syria. Kerry said nearly 40 countries had already committed to contributing military or humanitarian aid to Iraq.
Kerry also noted that the Saudis had invited Iraqi Foreign Minister Jaafari for one of the first such visits after years of bitter enmity between the Sunni royal family and Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
Kerry said he thought Iraq’s new government, sworn in Monday night, was a historic step forward and that Iraq’s leaders seem determined to keep the country together.
“Every single leader I talked with today in the strongest terms possible affirmed that they had learned the lessons of the past years” and were determined “to move in a different direction from the direction of years past,” he said.
Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.