WASHINGTON (AP) -- For years, the U.S. has been clear about its intent to step back from Iraq. The restrained American military aid now being offered to defend Baghdad against a ferocious Sunni insurgency reaffirms the Obama administration's mantra that Iraq is still largely on its own.
What hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, during more than eight years of war, apparently could not achieve in training Iraqi forces to defend the nation's vast deserts and dusty towns is now being tasked to a few dozen teams of Green Berets and other special forces and stepped-up surveillance.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama ordered 300 special forces soldiers to advise joint operations in and near Baghdad, marking the first return of a U.S. fighting force since the military left Iraq in 2011 after a war that killed nearly 4,500 American troops and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
The White House is not ruling out potential airstrikes against Sunni insurgents as well, but no time soon, and is deeply reluctant to do so.
And Obama, who has little desire to return to the battleground of what he once termed as a "dumb war," is holding fast to his pledge that American forces will not be sent into combat.
But faced with a costly and bloody U.S. investment in Iraq - combined with a growing regional threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Obama could no longer ignore the distress signals from Baghdad. The first U.S. special forces soldiers are to land in Baghdad soon, and a Navy aircraft carrier and warships arrived in the Persian Gulf in the latest front of America's military intervention in Iraq since 1990.
"It is in our national security interests not to see an all-out civil war inside of Iraq, not just for humanitarian reasons, but because that ultimately can be destabilizing throughout the region," Obama told reporters in announcing the restrained military help.
"But that does not foreshadow a larger commitment of troops to actually fight in Iraq," Obama said. "That would not be effective in meeting the core interests that we have."
Officials said the small size of the new American military footprint in Iraq fits Obama's vision of what the U.S. can accomplish without sending in tens of thousands of conventional troops in a reprise of the war he campaigned to end.
Given the relative ease that the ISIL has defeated Iraqi troops over the past two weeks and overrun major cities in the nation's north and west, U.S. officials said there was no expectation that the American aid will quell - or even directly face - the Sunni insurgency.
Instead, Obama said protecting the mostly Shiite capital in Baghdad was a top priority, and, initially at least, that's where the U.S. special forces will be based. They will join about 275 U.S. troops that were deployed this week to protect the American Embassy in Baghdad, located a few blocks away from the Iraqi parliament and prime minister's office in the heavily fortified compound known as the Green Zone.