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No repeat of 2003: Obama says U.S. military role in Iraq will be minor

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama is offering a minor American military contribution to the Iraqi conflict with a caveat: the intervention won't be a replay of 2003.

The U.S. president said Thursday he would send up to 300 military advisers and provide intelligence support for possible targeted strikes against a jihadist-backed Sunni insurgency.

Obama offered no guarantee of any air strikes. As for combat troops, he declared the idea a non-starter.

At a news conference, the president was asked how he could be sure he wasn't tiptoeing back into a quagmire. America's deadly involvement in Vietnam, after all, began with a team of military advisers.

"I think we always have to guard against mission creep," he said.

"So let me repeat what I've said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.

"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. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."

There are myriad signs of how much the American political climate has changed from a decade ago — with much less appetite for battle in Iraq.

This time, Dick Cheney's voice is being drowned out.

The hawkish former vice-president who pushed for the 2003 invasion is calling again for increased engagement — only now he's facing more hostility in public opinion, among former colleagues, and from usually friendly media.

Cheney even received a tongue-lashing during an appearance on Fox News.

"Time and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong as well in Iraq, sir," was how Fox host Megyn Kelly opened an interview with the former vice-president.

"You said there was no doubt Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the Iraq insurgency was in its last throes back in 2005, and you said that after our intervention, extremists would have to, quote, 'rethink their strategy of jihad.'

"Now, with almost $1 trillion dollars spent there, with almost 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say you were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many?"

Meanwhile, the architect of the Iraq troop surge in 2007, Gen. David Petraeus, warned during a U.K. appearance Thursday that the United States can't act as the air force for a Shia militia.

The author of George Bush's famous "axis of evil" phrase has also moved on. Former administration speech writer David Frum, a Canadian, penned a piece for the Atlantic this week titled, "Iraq Isn't Ours to Save."

A decade of war appeared to have taken a toll on public opinion.

Americans may be turning against Obama's foreign policy in general, with one survey this week pegging support for his performance on international affairs at just 37 per cent, the lowest such score of his presidency.

But they might agree with him on Iraq.

According to a Public Policy poll, 74 per cent of Americans oppose sending troops into Iraq. At the same time it said 67 per cent support providing intelligence and supplies to the Iraqi government.

Couple with previously announced measures, Thursday's action could put about 600 U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq. The 300 military advisers, mainly Green Berets, will work out of joint operation centres in Baghdad and northern Iraq, to share intelligence and co-ordinate planning with Iraqi forces.

The U.S. is also moving military assets toward the region, in case it decides to launch "targeted and precise military action," Obama said.

The president issued a pointed warning, meanwhile, for the Iraqi government, suggesting that the only way out of the current crisis was for the Shia-led government to involve Sunnis and Kurds in decision-making.

But he stopped short of calling for regime change. When asked whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should resign, Obama replied: "It's not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders."

Canada has ruled out any military participation in the conflict.

It has withdrawn its only diplomat from the country and, unlike some other Western allies, it has also refrained from re-engaging next-door neighbour Iran amid the crisis.

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