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Obama's Iraq plan gets bipartisan support on Capitol Hill

Proposal to send up to 300 military advisers initially satisfies members of both parties.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House about the Iraq situation in Washington June 19, 2014.                REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES  - Tags: POLITICS)   - RTR3UPCH

President Barack Obama managed to unite supporters of military action in Iraq and more dovish lawmakers with his plan to help the Iraqi government fight Islamist militants.

In a televised address June 19, the president outlined plans to run joint operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq and send up to 300 military advisers to "assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward." He said the United States "will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it" and vowed to work with Congress if it comes to that.

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

Some hawkish lawmakers applauded the speech, even as they acknowledged that the details remain murky.

"I felt that what the president said today is a much better place to be than where we were 24 hours ago, the beginning of this morning," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., an Iraq hawk and potential 2016 presidential candidate, told reporters after a closed briefing of the Senate Foreign Relations panel. "I think there's the beginning of an outline of what I hope will be a concrete plan we can all rally around."

Rubio urged the president to move forward with a plan to cut off the militants' supply lines of fighters, equipment and fuel in Syria and Iraq; target command-and-control centers in Syria; increase the capacity of moderate Syrian rebels; and bolster Jordan's ability to counter a similar threat.

Others sighed in relief that the president isn't moving faster despite some conservatives' calls for immediate airstrikes.

"Both the intelligence and the political situation on the ground needs to change," Senate Foreign Relations member Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told Al-Monitor. "I don't want to move any faster than the president is moving, myself."

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., approved of the president's cautious approach.

"I appreciate the president wants actionable intelligence before he might consider specific strikes against" ISIS, he said. "I support strikes once and if they can determine exactly what our high-value targets" are.

And the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said 300 military advisers could make a real difference.

"As far as having military advisers on the ground, certainly something to alter the Iraqi behavior needs to take place," Corker said. "Just having a core of people there makes a tremendous difference in enabling the Iraqi military to function."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, agreed.

"That would probably be enough, if that's the route he's going to take," Inhofe said.

The unexpectedly broad support stems in part from the dire situation painted by administration officials briefing Congress. Even as liberal groups raise their voices — Civic Action Executive Director Anna Galland in a statement called the decision to send advisers "a dangerous and troubling development that threatens to lead to broader military engagement" — Democrats are siding with the president.

"I think the potential for this to escalate into a full-fledged regional proxy war means we have to take it seriously," Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Al-Monitor. "I don't think there's any interest in … sending new ground forces in, but I'm very open to hearing the president's case for a limited number of military advisers."

Murphy said he'd received an "incredibly sober briefing" on Thursday. While opposed to military strikes in Syria, he said "the stakes in Iraq are much greater" for national security interests.

Murphy, Rubio and others said the president had broad authority to act now, but should seek congressional approval if the US role escalates.

Not everyone was satisfied, however.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who has urgently called for drone strikes, issued a statement after Obama outlined his approach, saying it "underestimates the seriousness of the threat."

"The steps he announced are needed," Royce said, "but fall short of what is required to stop this al-Qaeda offshoot from gaining more power, which must include drone strikes."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said he hoped the advisers would be a precursor to US airstrikes he said could do wonders for the morale of Iraqi troops.

"For the advisers, lots of times that can be a cover for forward air controllers — people making sure the air power hits the right target," Kirk said.

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