Islamist militants swept toward Baghdad on Sunday, leaving a bloody trail in their wake and putting pressure on the Obama administration to come up with a response as Republicans warned that sectarian violence in Iraq is making the world less safe with each passing day.
As the State Department pulled some people from its Baghdad embassy and bolstered security there, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a U.S. aircraft carrier to move into the Persian Gulf “should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq,” the Pentagon said.
Members of Congress said it is time for the White House to link up with Arab allies and quell the violence.
Top Republicans said the administration has sat on the sidelines for too long as the fighting threatens to undo what U.S. troops accomplished during the war in Iraq. The bloodshed spurred by militants from an al Qaeda splinter group could topple the country’s fragile government while civil war rages in neighboring Syria, they said, offering a magnet for Islamist extremists from the region and even Western nations.
“Iraq and Syria combined are going to be the staging area for the next 9/11 if we don’t do something about it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, also held up the memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when warning of the consequences of an Islamist victory.
“We can’t wait days and weeks and months to scratch our heads in some political reconciliation process,” Mr. Rogers told “Fox News Sunday.” “We have to ask one single question: Is al Qaeda holding land the size of India a problem for the United States? Well, it certainly was when they were in Afghanistan and had time to plan the 9/11 event.”
However, Mr. Obama said Friday the U.S. will not send troops and stressed it is now time for the Iraqis to take full responsibility for their own security.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Sunday to assure the Iraqis the U.S. is considering a range of options to help Iraq’s forces push back the militants’ advances.
CNN reported Sunday, based on discussions with an unnamed U.S. official, that from 50 to 100 Marines and soldiers had arrived at the Baghdad embassy, and that the Marines were men “who specialize in embassy protection during high-threat conditions.”
The battle lines for sectarian war in Iraq appeared to harden in recent days as the nation’s most-revered Shiite Muslim cleric called on all Iraqis to take up arms against the al Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremists who have seized control of several Iraqi cities and towns this week.
The appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a religious leader known to pull tremendous sway over Iraq’s Shiite majority, came as leaders in nearby Iran, the region’s Shiite powerhouse, began deploying elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard units to Iraq to combat the rising Sunni insurgency.
In his appearance on CNN, Mr. Graham noted the irony of the U.S. and Iran both looking to prop up the central government in Baghdad, and while he answered “hell no” when asked whether he was completely happy about that, he also said it’d be far from an unprecedented case.
“We have common interests,” he said. “Why did we deal with Stalin [as an ally during World War II]? Because he was not as bad as Hitler.”
In the latest turn of events, Islamist fighters posted graphic photos that appeared to show its fighters massacring dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers.
The pictures on a militant website appear to show masked fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, loading the captives onto flatbed trucks before forcing them to lie facedown in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs. The final images show the bodies of the captives soaked in blood after being shot.
The grisly images could further sharpen sectarian tensions as hundreds of Shiites heed a call from their most revered spiritual leader to take up arms against the Sunni militants who have swept across the north. ISIL has vowed to take the battle to Baghdad and cities farther south that house revered Shiite shrines.
Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded in central Baghdad, killing 10 and wounding 21, according to police and hospital officials. Baghdad has seen an escalation in suicide and car bombings in recent months, mostly targeting Shiite neighborhoods or security forces.
While the city of 7 million is not in any immediate danger of falling into the hands of the militants, Sunday’s bombing could raise tensions.
The government bolstered defenses around Baghdad on Sunday, a day after hundreds of Shiite men paraded through the streets with arms in response to the call for Iraqis to defend their country. ISIL has vowed to attack Baghdad, but its advance to the south seems to have stalled in recent days.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Sunday the U.S. embassy in Baghdad will remain open and “will continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders — supporting them as they strengthen Iraq’s constitutional processes and defend themselves from imminent threats.”
In light of recent instability, the department may add personnel to its Baghdad location — the Pentagon said it will provide military personnel to secure U.S. facilities — and shuffle around staff in its various Iraqi locations.
Ms. Psaki said U.S. citizens in Iraq should “exercise caution” and limit any travel to Anbar, Ninawa, Salah ad-Din, Diyala and Kirkuk provinces.
Mr. Rogers ruled out U.S. troops on the ground but not more limited military involvement. Most importantly, the United States needs to link up with its Arab allies to quell the uprising, he told Fox News Sunday.
“You can’t fire missiles and then turn around and come home,” he said. “It has to be a coordinated effort. That’s why you have to have the Arab League with you.”
Mr. Graham, when asked whether the White House will use U.S. air power, said “I think they have to” and added there’d be little political downside.
“It’s stunning to me that nobody in Congress is saying, ‘You have got to come to us first.’ Everybody in Congress is scared to death of what’s going to happen in Iraq,” he said. “But nobody is saying, ‘Mr. President, don’t use air power.’ The air force in Iraq, I think, has been grounded.”
Other Republicans, including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, criticized Mr. Obama for his inaction as Iraq dissolves into chaos.
Mr. Romney said Syrian President Bashar Assad was on the defensive a couple of years ago, and Mr. Obama had the chance to sign a status of forces agreement to keep a U.S. presence in Iraq.
“Bad things happen as a result of inaction,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Consequences have obviously been very severe.”
Mr. Graham said Mr. Obama for the last several years has been “stubborn-headed, delusional, detached,” approaching Iraq purely as the arena to carry out domestic politics.
“They got what they wanted. The Obama administration wanted to say, ‘I ended the war in Iraq. I’m going to end the war in Afghanistan.’ This [result in Iraq] was as predictable as the sun rising in the east. I blame President Obama mightily for a hands-off policy when it comes to Iraq,” he said.
Added Mr. Graham: “The lack of a residual force, the stubborn-headed president we have — who thinks he knows better than everybody else, who withdrew troops and exposed this country to the inevitable — needs to change his policies quickly. If he does, we can still save this.”