- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

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.”

SEE ALSO: Al-Baghdadi, a brutal contender for bin Laden’s mantle, emerges in Iraq

“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.

SEE ALSO: Obama, amid terrorist storm of Iraq: ‘The world is less violent’ than ever

Political headaches

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.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, accused Mr. Obama of “taking a nap” while the Islamic extremists seized territory that was reclaimed by U.S. forces as part of President George W. Bush’s surge in the past decade. A White House spokesman fired back that Mr. Boehner wasn’t offering any helpful “policy prescriptions.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the situation in Iraq shows that Mr. Obama’s national security team is a “failure” and that the president needs to replace Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves,” Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said the situation in Iraq is “very dire” and urged the Obama administration to present a plan to Congress “very, very soon.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said “it’s pretty clear to me that something has got to be done.”

“It’s a period of decision, and I think decisions have got to be made,” she said about the debate at the White House. “It’s [a question of] what the decisions are, what the chances of success are.”

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee received what some described as a sobering military briefing from the administration. They described four Iraqi army divisions dissolving and some Iraqi troops wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms.

“This is a desperate situation,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican. “It’s moving quickly. It appears to me that the chickens are coming home to roost for the president’s policy of not leaving anybody there to be a stabilizing force.”

Less than three years after Mr. Obama carried out his campaign pledge to end the eight-year combat operation in Iraq, administration officials and lawmakers are debating whether to send military assistance and how to protect the gains made during the war, in which 4,000 U.S. troops were killed.

“There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American air power,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “It is my worst fear come true. If the president is willing to adjust his policies, I’m willing to help him.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a point man for the administration in its Iraq policy, held an urgent phone conversation Thursday with Mr. al-Maliki and pledged more U.S. military aid. The White House said Mr. Biden “made clear that the United States is prepared to continue to intensify and accelerate security support and cooperation with Iraq.”

“The vice president underscored that it will be critically important for all of Iraq’s communities to reach a lasting political accommodation and to be united in order to defeat their common enemy,” the White House said.

In addition to a possible military re-engagement, the administration said, the U.S. is providing an extra $12.8 million to aid as many as a half-million Iraqis displaced by the latest fighting. That brings to $1.1 billion the amount of U.S. aid for Iraqi refugees since 2010.

Pentagon worries

Until Mr. Obama issues a green light for a military operation or airstrikes, the Defense Department is limited in what it can do, a Pentagon official said Thursday.

Over the past decade, Iraq has accumulated more than $15 billion in military equipment, said the Pentagon official, speaking on background. The list includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, 300 Hellfire missiles, rounds of firearm ammunition and thousands of tank rounds, machine guns and grenades, the official said.

Some have speculated that ISIL fighters have made a grab for that equipment. Pictures and stories that have surfaced within the past few days indicate that the group has managed to capture Black Hawk helicopters. But the Pentagon maintains that it never provided Black Hawk helicopters to Iraq.

Online images that imply ISIL is in possession of U.S. military helicopters are false, a second Pentagon official said.

“Anyone can pretty readily determine and verify that it’s a stock photo of a Black Hawk helicopter that has appeared on dozens of websites well before the current crisis,” the official said.

The developments in Iraq are a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s frequent pronouncements that al Qaeda is “on the run” and that its leadership has been decimated. In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point three weeks ago, the president backed a policy of restraint abroad and called for an end to U.S. “military adventures.”

Mr. Obama said Thursday that the crisis in Iraq underscores his approach outlined in the West Point speech — that the U.S. should rely more on partners to fight extremism in the Middle East and in Africa.

“We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time,” Mr. Obama said. “But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.”

He said his proposed $5 billion “counterterrorism partnership fund” would allow the U.S. “to extend our reach without sending U.S. troops to play Whac-A-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country.”

“That’s going to be more effective,” Mr. Obama said.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are raising calls for the administration to provide airstrikes against the militants, including the possible use of drones.

“Certainly, we need to help stabilize the country,” Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, said on MSNBC. “The extent to which we can help with airstrikes and drones with no boots on the ground, I think is a good decision. Restoring stability there is in our country’s best interests.”

The president’s options in Iraq do not include troops, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

“We are not contemplating ground troops. I want to be clear about that,” Mr. Carney said.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and author of the legislation that created the Iraq Study Group, said the developments in Iraq are “deeply troubling.”

“This jihadi extremist group, with origins in al Qaeda, is effectively carving out a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East before our eyes, and the Obama administration appears to have no plan to respond,” Mr. Wolf said.

S.A. Miller and Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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