- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

President Obama reviewed military options in Iraq with congressional leaders Wednesday as advancing militants forced the shutdown of the country’s biggest oil refinery and Republicans accused Mr. Obama of dithering while hard-fought U.S. gains were being lost.

The president held an hourlong meeting at the White House with lawmakers from both parties, who emerged without indicating what actions Mr. Obama might take to halt the advancement of thousands of fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Obama “briefed us on the approach he’s taking toward developing a strategy for Iraq.”

“Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force [in 2011] without successfully negotiating a remaining U.S. presence capable of preserving our gains and mentoring our partners,” Mr. McConnell said.

The White House said Mr. Obama updated lawmakers on his efforts to respond to the threats “by urging Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian agendas and to come together with a sense of national unity.”

Mr. Obama also discussed proposed “increased security assistance” to Baghdad, the White House said.

An official at Iraq’s largest domestic oil refinery said Sunni militants took over 75 percent of the facility in Baiji after clashes with Iraqi security forces.

“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watchtowers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” said an official speaking from inside the refinery.

Two fuel storage tanks were reportedly in flames at the refinery, about 155 miles north of the capital of Baghdad. An official said militants targeted the oil refinery with mortars and machine guns.

In response, Iraqi security forces and helicopter gunships bombarded positions of the militants inside the refinery. Iraq’s government denied reports that the facility had been overrun.

Iraq’s chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said government forces repelled the siege.

Gen. al-Moussawi said 40 militants were killed in the fighting overnight and early Wednesday. There was no independent confirmation either of his claims or of claims that the Iraqi military retook neighborhoods in Tal Afar.

As the fighting raged over the past week and threatened to break apart Iraq, lawmakers of both parties in Congress urged Mr. Obama to devise a plan quickly to counter the militants, who are linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network and seek to create a safe haven for their group.

The president on Monday ordered up to 275 combat-ready troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and help relocate some of the thousands of Americans in the country, but has ruled out deploying combat troops to engage the ISIL forces.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers in a hearing Wednesday that the president’s options include airstrikes, but administration officials are still weighing the risks.

“Options like airstrikes, as the president said, he’s not ruled in or out, but there has to be a reason for those,” Mr. Hagel said. “There has to be an objective. What does it do to move the effort down the road for a political solution?”

Crescendo of criticism

The criticism of U.S. inaction was reaching a crescendo Wednesday as Mr. Obama held the meeting with congressional leaders.

After members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee received a classified briefing from senior State Department officials on the security situation in Iraq, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave voice to the frustration over the administration’s slow response to the crisis.

“They are always late to the game,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. “They are always thinking about, thinking about, thinking about and considering options.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, met Wednesday with Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, and said the ambassador repeated Baghdad’s request for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni militants.

Mr. Royce said it was “a request that Iraq has been making to the White House since August 2013 and with greater urgency over the past few months.”

“We shared our mutual concern that the White House has denied drone strike requests as ISIS has advanced in broad daylight,” Mr. Royce said of the meeting. The lawmaker also called on Baghdad to govern more inclusively, “especially given the degree to which [ISIL] has exploited long-standing political rifts between Sunni groups and the Shia-dominated government.”

U.S. officials say Mr. Obama’s decision is complicated by the political situation in Iraq, with shifting forces often indistinguishable from afar.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers Wednesday that the option of U.S. airstrikes is complicated by a lack of intelligence and the fact that worthy targets have become difficult to identify amid the chaos in northern Iraq.

“These forces are very much intermingled,” Gen. Dempsey testified. “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it. Until we can actually clarify this intelligence picture, the options will continue to be built and developed and refined and the intelligence picture made more accurate. And then the president can make a decision.”

Mr. McConnell said it is critical that the U.S. protect Americans, allies and U.S. interests, “and that we learn from the situation in Iraq as the president begins the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Mr. Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the crisis in Iraq “is a direct result of the president’s misguided decisions” to withdraw all forces in 2011 after failing to reach an agreement with Baghdad to gain immunity for U.S. troops.

“Now the CIA and others are scrambling to close gaps in intelligence to support possible action against militants — specifically airstrikes,” Mr. Hunter said. “Militarily, the U.S. won in Iraq, but the hard-fought and hard-earned gains of our servicemen and women have been politically squandered by the president and his administration.”

Cheney vs. Carney

Among the administration’s more familiar critics was former Vice President Dick Cheney, who penned an op-ed with daughter Liz Cheney on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal to take Mr. Obama to task over Iraq.

“Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” the Cheneys wrote. “Instead, he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

Asked to respond, White House press secretary Jay Carney quipped to a reporter, “Which president was he talking about?”

Mr. Carney went on to say that Mr. Cheney is “entitled to his opinions.”

“Look, it’s obviously always good to hear from former Vice President Cheney,” Mr. Carney said. “Many others have said it’s clear that President Obama and our team here have distinctly different views on Iraq from the team that led the U.S. to Iraq in 2003.”

A reporter also asked Mr. Carney to respond to Mr. Cheney’s criticism that Mr. Obama “is out golfing when he should be paying attention, and seems unaware.” The president played golf over the weekend at Palm Springs, California, during a respite with first lady Michelle Obama.

“It’s clear the president has been paying attention and has been engaging with his security team,” Mr. Carney said. “He’s been deliberate surrounding the use of American military force. His belief is we should always be deliberate in that kind of decision-making process, and we should very carefully weigh the consequences, both desired and undesired, that can come from the use of U.S. military force.”

He also said “some in the past have suggested [that] the United States should have occupied Iraq in perpetuity. That’s not President Obama’s view.”

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

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