WASHINGTON - 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.
The special forces will be deployed in teams of 12 to advise Iraqi military command centers and brigade-level headquarters in and immediately around the capital. Much of their mission is to identify security gaps and assess whether more U.S. troops will be needed to help foster stability. They are not expected to fight in any battles directly.
American aircraft, both manned and piloted remotely, will conduct surveillance patrols over areas where the ISIL is most active. Military officials described an around-the-clock surveillance effort to locate the insurgency and, likely, advise Iraqi troops on how to rout them.
But with more than a half-million Iraqi security troops in the country, there's almost no chance the small U.S. teams will have any impact on more than just a tiny fraction of them.
And even the limited assistance will likely amount to nothing if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, refuses to take dramatic steps to calm the violence through political means -- namely, sharing more power with Sunnis who increasingly are seeing the insurgency as a popular uprising against the government.
The Obama administration has demanded that al-Maliki quickly move to embrace Sunni concerns, and some U.S. officials have suggested privately that the prime minister give up his post to send the strongest possible sign that he seeks peace for Iraq above all else.
Iraqi officials say there is no indication that al-Maliki will step down, and the stalwart prime minister likely sees the new U.S. military assistance as a slap in the face that falls far short of airstrikes and other help that his government has been seeking urgently.
Already, al-Maliki's Shiite allies in neighboring Iran have signaled they are willing to fill Iraq's security void -- a move that all but certainly would enforce crackdowns on Sunnis and further push the country into civil war.
Ken Pollack, a Mideast expert and former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, said the new U.S. military assistance "is too small in number" to have much impact and raised concerns that the mostly Shiite Iraqi forces will not fully cooperate with the American troops.
But Iraq is currently dependent on the American-made weaponry and ammunition that it has gotten from the U.S. over the years -- meaning Baghdad may, for now, have its hands tied if it tries to push Washington away.
And though U.S. officials are not planning to have the special forces teams call in airstrikes, they did not rule out the possibility of calling in such attacks if necessary. That will serve as a powerful incentive for al-Maliki to cooperate with Washington's demands without the U.S. having to make any explicit promises.
"At the end of the day, the only leverage we have is that al-Maliki may want greater American support," Pollack said. "How much does he want it?"