President Barack Obama has shifted his focus away from airstrikes in Iraq as an imminent option for slowing a fast-moving Islamic insurgency, in part because there are few clear targets that U.S. could hit, officials said.
Iraq, however, has officially requested the US government to launch surgical strikes on the militant outfit that have threateningly neared Baghdad.
“Iraq has officially asked Washington to help under the security agreement (between the two countries), and to conduct air strikes against terrorist groups,” Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Saudi Arabia.
Officials said Obama has made no final decisions and could ultimately approve limited strikes if stronger targets emerge. The CIA and other spy agencies are scrambling to close intelligence gaps in the region and track the movements of key figures in the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country’s military melted away.
The president summoned top congressional leaders to the White House Wednesday afternoon to discuss the collapsing security situation. The relentless violence marks the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. military withdrew at the end of 2011 after more than eight years of war.
Ahead of his meeting at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the U.S. had no business sending American troops into the midst of what he called Iraq’s civil war.
“It’s time for the Iraqis to resolve it themselves,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Taking on Republicans who have blamed the current violence on the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Reid said, “Those who attack President Obama for bringing our troops home from Iraq are wrong and out of step with the American people. After a decade of war, the American people have had enough. American families have had enough.”
Obama has ruled out returning combat troops to Iraq in order to quell the insurgency. However, he has notified Congress that up to 275 armed U.S. forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. interests.
Officials have said Obama is also considering sending a small contingent of special operations forces to help train the Iraqi military. Other options under consideration in include boosting Iraq’s intelligence about the militants and more broadly, encouraging the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to become more inclusive.
The U.S. has also made initial overtures to its long-time foe Iran, which has an interest in seeing the Iraqi government survive, though officials have ruled out the possibility of military cooperation with Tehran.