Caught off guard by stunning battlefield gains made by al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq, President Obama tried to assure alarmed lawmakers Thursday that he is not ruling out anything to help the besieged government in Baghdad, including airstrikes.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama said the U.S. has an interest in ensuring jihadists don’t gain control in Iraq.
“I don’t rule out anything,” he said. “We do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.”
Al Qaeda-aligned Sunni militants were advancing south and threatening to move on Baghdad after overrunning the cities of Mosul and Tikrit — with Iraqi government forces retreating.
U.S. citizens working in Iraq under contract to the Baghdad government were being temporarily relocated “due to security concerns in the area,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Less than three years after U.S. combat troops left Iraq, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said in a statement that they were imposing strict Shariah religious law in Mosul and other Iraqi cities under their control. They warned Sunnis supporting the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to desert or “face only death.”
“We will march to Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” a spokesman boasted in an audio recording posted on militant websites, according to The Associated Press.
Military strategists doubt the ISIL, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, could take and hold Baghdad, but authorities in the capital reportedly were tightening security and stockpiling essentials.
The militants have established a sizable base in Iraq and neighboring Syria and have advanced much farther and faster than many expected.
“Everybody I know is worried for the safety of his family as the militants are advancing to Baghdad,” Hazim Hussein, a Shiite shop owner, told AP.
Iran, a close ally of Mr. al-Maliki’s government, offered support to Baghdad, and President Hassan Rouhani denounced the ISIL as “barbaric.”
Mr. Rouhani did not say whether Iran might take overt steps in Iraq, but Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said Tehran will “mightily support” the Iraqi government in its “confrontation with terrorism,” according to Iran’s Fars news agency.
The setbacks in Iraq were creating political headaches for Mr. Obama.
Some congressional Republicans said the ISIL advances are a result of Mr. Obama’s failure to strike a deal with the al-Maliki government to keep at least some U.S. troops in Iraq after December 2011. Even some Democrats said the administration needs to come up with a better plan for stabilizing Iraq, and quickly.