WASHINGTON/TIKRIT (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was sending up to 300 US military advisers to Iraq but stressed the need for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis as government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery.
Speaking after a meeting with his national security team, Obama said he was prepared to take "targeted" military action later if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of US air strikes against a militant insurgency.
But he insisted that US troops would not return to combat in Iraq.
Obama called on the Shi'ite government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to take urgent steps to heal the country's sectarian rift, something US officials say the Iraqi leader has failed to do and which an al Qaeda splinter group leading the Sunni revolt has exploited.
"We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq," Obama told reporters.
"Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
Obama, who withdrew US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, said the United States would significantly increase support for Iraq's beleaguered security forces.
But he stopped short of acceding to Baghdad's request for the immediate use of US air power to fend off insurgents who have overrun northern Iraq.
The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, US officials said.
Leading US lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him.
Some US officials believe there is a need for new Iraqi leadership but are mindful that Washington may not have enough clout to influence the situation, a former senior administration official said.
While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister when asked by a reporter whether he would do so.
And in an apparent warning to Maliki, Obama said "only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together to help them through this crisis."
Obama's decision to dispatch military advisers and deepen US re-enagagement in Iraq came after days of difficult deliberations for a president who won the White House in 2008 on a pledge to disentangle the United States from the long, unpopular war there.
He said on Thursday that recent days had reminded Americans of the "deep scars" from its Iraq experience.
Even as Obama announced his most significant response to the Iraqi crisis, the sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km north of the capital near Tikrit, was transformed into a battlefield.
Troops loyal to the Shi'ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A government spokesman said that its forces were in "complete control."
But a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing.
Two Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the refinery remained under rebel control.
A day after the government publicly appealed for US air power, Obama's decision to hold off for now on such strikes underscored skepticism in Washington over whether they would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority.
"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it," Obama said.
But he insisted that any US military response would not be in support of one Iraqi sect over another.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the United States "does not view such attacks positively," given the risk to civilians.
A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has widened under Maliki.
A senior member of Maliki's State of Law list suggested immediate US military action was no longer necessary because defence in the capital Baghdad had been strengthened and the new advisers will make it easier to bomb in the future if needed.