(Adds quotes, details, Hagel comment)
By Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States would send up to 300 military advisers to support Iraqi forces confronting an al Qaeda splinter group attacking the country and was prepared to take targeted military action if necessary.
But the U.S. president, speaking to a news conference after meeting with his national security team, insisted: "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," he said. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
Obama said the military advisers would support Iraqi security forces and create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the insurgents.
U.S. officials have said the advisers would be special forces troops operating in 12-member teams in different parts of the country in non-combat roles. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the commandos would assess the situation on the ground and evaluate gaps in the Iraqi security forces.
Obama said U.S. military forces had increased their intelligence gathering over Iraq in recent days and would consider military strikes if necessary.
"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, adding that he would consult with the U.S. Congress and leaders in the region before taking action.
He said Secretary of State John Kerry would go to the Middle East and Europe this weekend to lead diplomatic efforts to promote stability in the region.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein. It withdrew its troops from the country in 2011, handing over responsibility for security to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Obama has said the Iraqi government must take steps to heal the political rift among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds before he will agree to any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an al Qaeda splinter group.
U.S. officials have criticized Maliki's performance, saying he has worsened the country's sectarian divisions. Some senior U.S. lawmakers have said Maliki should step down to make way for someone able to work more effectively across sectarian lines.
Obama said on Thursday the administration had discussed these issues with Maliki privately. The president said it was not the job of the United States to pick Iraq's leaders, but added: "As long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it's going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats."
Asked whether Maliki was the kind of leader who could unify the country, Obama said "the test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak."
"Right now is a moment where the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance and the test for all of them is whether they can overcome the mistrust, the deep sectarian divisions," he said. "We can provide them the space, we can provide them the tools, but ultimately they are going to have to make those decisions."
Obama has taken several steps in response to the Iraq crisis. He told Congress on Monday the United States was deploying up to 275 military personnel to provide support and security for the U.S. Embassy and U.S. citizens in Iraq.
The United States also is flying F-18 attack aircraft launched from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents who have seized part of the country, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
U.S. officials have said while Obama is considering manned or unmanned air strikes, Washington lacks the kind of precise intelligence it needs to conduct the strikes effectively. (Reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, Roberta Rampton and Phil Stewart; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)
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