SUNBURY — WASHINGTON — In ordering hundreds of military advisers to Iraq and dramatically ramping up intelligence-gathering on jihadist fighters threatening Baghdad, President Barack Obama sent his strongest signal yet that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may be likely.
Since ISIL fighters took control of two key Iraqi cities last week, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have blanketed portions of the country with spy satellites and drones, giving them what one senior administration official called "round-the-clock coverage" of locations where ISIL is active. The military personnel headed to Iraq -- as many as 300, Obama said -- will work alongside Iraqi military forces in special intelligence centers, using drone video feeds and spy satellite photographs to track and attack ISIL fighters. They'll also be in a prime position to help carry out U.S. airstrikes the moment Obama orders them.
In remarks from the White House this week, Obama didn't say that airstrikes are imminent. He stressed that the only long-term solution to Iraq's stabilization will come from political reconciliation between the Shiite-led government and the marginalized Sunni minority. But he left no doubt that he's putting all the pieces in place to launch the first significant military action in Iraq since U.S. forces left there in 2011.
"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Obama said. Echoing the commander-in-chief, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement: "The Department of Defense will continue to plan and prepare further military options should they become necessary and we will remain ready to protect our diplomats, our citizens, and our interests in Iraq."
In the short term, spies, not soldiers, will likely fuel any gains against ISIL. Prior to possible airstrikes, there will be "a broader intelligence mission that includes a significant amount of [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], and then we'll be making decisions about specific targets," a senior administration official told reporters after Obama's remarks.