President Barack Obama said he’ll decide over the next several days whether to commit the U.S. military to helping Iraq slow an offensive by militants, while warning that the conflict won’t end unless Iraq’s leaders bridge political differences.
Obama ruled out sending ground forces and emphasized that action isn’t imminent. He said the U.S. won’t be able to prop up a government that can’t unify the country or bolster an army unwilling to confront the Sunni extremists who are waging a battle against the Shiite leadership in Baghdad.
“This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge,” Obama said at the White House today. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back” into trying to keep a lid on unrest and have Iraqi leaders undermine chances for an accommodation with foes.
“This should be a wakeup call; Iraq’s leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together,” he said. “We can’t do it for them.”
Sunni militants have repeatedly routed the Iraqi army and advanced toward Baghdad, threatening to ignite a sectarian civil war in the country. A representative of Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader today urged citizens to take up arms, according to Al-Mada Press. Iran has vowed to support the Shiite-led government, risking a wider conflict.
The gains made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which split from an al-Qaeda affiliate last year, pose the biggest risk to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq three years ago. They also threaten the stability of oil production in the north of the country.
Maliki last month asked the U.S. to mount air attacks against militant training camps in western Iraq. Obama has said he wouldn’t rule out that option. He emphasized today that there are no plans to put U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the U.S. increased its flights of intelligence and surveillance aircraft this week at the request of the Iraqi government. While Kirby didn’t provide details, the surveillance involved unarmed drones, according to a defense official who asked not to be identified discussing military operations.
Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has met “a number of times” with senior officials at the Pentagon to prepare military options, short of U.S. ground troops. He said the options “cover a wide range of military capabilities” intended to break the insurgents’ momentum.
Obama said any additional military support is not “going to happen overnight.”
Some Republicans accused Obama of failing to quickly address the threat posed by the radical Islamists.
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two frequent critics of Obama’s policy, said that while they agreed the Iraqi government must bring about a national reconciliation, the threat now is urgent. They called on the president to order airstrikes.
“This is not just Iraq’s problem,” they said in a joint statement. “Our most immediate priority must be to reverse the advance of a terrorist force that is more radical, violent, and ambitious than Al-Qaeda.”
John Negroponte, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and a former director of national intelligence, said the U.S. should authorize air strikes “as quickly as possible.”
“I don’t think Baghdad is under imminent threat but, still, it is an alarming situation,” Negroponte said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. He spoke before the president’s remarks.
Another concern is oil production in Iraq, the second biggest producer in OPEC. Obama said no major disruption in oil supplies has occurred yet and that other countries in the region should be able to make up the difference if Iraqi crude production is cut. That will be “part of the consultations that’ll be taking place during the course of this week,” he said.
Iraq produced 3.3 million barrels a day last month, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Kurdish forces this week moved into Kirkuk to protect oil fields while part of the pipeline that exports crude oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan from Kirkuk has fallen under the control of ISIL, as has the link to the 310,000 barrel a day Baiji refinery.
Crude oil futures in New York had their biggest weekly gains this year. West Texas Intermediate for July delivery rose 38 cents today, or 0.4 percent, to settle at $106.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent for July settlement, which expires today, increased 39 cents to $113.41 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com Joe Sobczyk, Don Frederick