He will announce in coming days how far he is willing to go in
responding to the crisis in Iraq, where militants are sweeping south
towards the capital Baghdad in a campaign to recreate a large
mediaeval Islamic caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria.
While Obama has ruled out sending combat troops, U.S. officials say
options under consideration include air strikes on Sunni insurgents
threatening the Shi’ite-led government, accelerated delivery of
weapons and expanded training of Iraqi security forces. The U.S.
already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone
aircraft over Iraq, officials said.
There is growing skepticism both inside and outside of the
administration whether Washington has the will, let alone the power,
to halt Iraq’s slide into a civil war that could tear it apart. The
collapse of Iraq’s U.S.-trained army in the north this week has
compounded concerns that fast-moving events are unfolding beyond
America’s ability to control them, say officials.
"It is a colossal mess," said one senior U.S. official.
Hoping to mitigate the risk of a failed U.S. response, the
administration may opt for a phased approach, first trying to shore
up Iraqi forces and possibly resorting to more direct military
action if the situation deteriorates further, according to a source
familiar with the White House’s thinking.
The biggest questions center on whether the United States will carry
out air strikes, either with warplanes or unmanned drones, against
militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL,
which moved swiftly to seize the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit
this week and now threaten Baghdad.
Such attacks, an option the Pentagon described on Friday as "kinetic
strikes", could be launched from aircraft carriers or from the
sprawling U.S. air base at Incirlik in Turkey. The carrier USS
George H.W. Bush and its strike group are already "in the region,"
the Pentagon said on Friday.
While a U.S. air assault could send a tough message to ISIL forces
about Washington’s commitment to the survival of the besieged Iraqi
government, national security officials are raising concerns about
the U.S. ability to target roving bands of insurgents and seriously
damage their fighting capabilities.
Air strikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen
the crisis, said two U.S. national security sources. Another big
concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people.
"TARGETED" AND "PRECISE"
Obama's insistence on Friday that any military action would be
"targeted" and "precise" appears to reflect a desire for a cautious
course that avoids civilian casualties and prevents war-weary
Americans from being dragged back into Iraq's sectarian quagmire.
A former U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said that, in
discussions within the administration, the White House is seeking to
limit the extent of American military involvement, casting doubt
over whether the White House would go ahead with a Pentagon-proposed
package of military equipment, training and potential air strikes.
The former official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal
government deliberations, said Obama and his top aides were focused
on increased military sales to the government of Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki and leery of proposals for drone strikes against ISIL.
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The idea of speeding up delivery of U.S. weapons to Iraqi forces is
also not without drawbacks.
While shipments of small arms and
counterterrorism equipment may be possible in the near term, large
military hardware such as F-16 jet fighters and Apache attack
helicopters take much more time to move out of the production
Transfer of more of the Hellfire air-to-ground missiles that Iraq
has requested could be accelerated. Lockheed Martin Corp, which
makes the Hellfire, said it would work with the U.S. government to
step up those deliveries if asked.
But U.S. officials may be wary of moving too quickly in this area,
especially after seeing U.S.-supplied equipment such as Humvee
patrol vehicles and artillery fall into militants’ hands during
their lightning advance this week.
The Pentagon had pushed for months, sometimes against resistance
from White House policymakers, for Iraq to be given a package of
enhanced military support to combat the insurgency. But some
analysts say proposals on the table are insufficient to help Iraqi
forces turn the tide against advancing militants.
“They (the administration) have to do something,” said former CIA
and White House official Ken Pollack, who is now at the Brookings
Institution think tank.
But he said the most recent U.S. proposals amounted to mostly a
counter-terrorism package “which will basically have no impact on
And he suggested it could even further complicate matters by
furthering the perception that the United States is squarely on the
side of Iraq’s Shi’ite government, which has alienated large swaths
of the country’s Sunni minority.Obama’s deliberations on the
possible use of military force in Iraq echoed last year’s debate on
whether to strike Syria over the use of chemical weapons.
The president has again promised to “consult with Congress” but he
stopped short of saying he would bring the issue to a vote by
lawmakers. Congressional opposition to the Syria strike plan
contributed to Obama’s decision not to go ahead with it.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Phil Stewart, Missy Ryan,
Andrea Shalal and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jason Szep and Peter
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