WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama said Thursday he won’t rule out using airstrikes to help Iraq’s government beat back Islamic militants who have seized major cities and threaten to ignite a sectarian civil war.
“I don’t rule out anything,” Obama said when asked whether the U.S. was willing to conduct drone strikes or take other action against the jihadists. Iraq “clearly is an emergency situation” and the government there needs more help.
Any move by Obama to intervene in Iraq would hit opposition in Congress. While some lawmakers were pressing for the U.S. to act, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, said he would oppose funding any military action. His counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Carl Levin, said he was skeptical that airstrikes made sense.
Three years after the U.S. and other members of an international coalition withdrew forces from Iraq, the army of the Shiite-led government has collapsed after being confronted by radical Sunni forces that have swept through northern Iraq, threatening the stability of OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.
“I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq, or Syria, for that matter,” Obama said after a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the White House.
Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said afterward that the U.S. is “not contemplating ground troops.”
Carney said he could not confirm a Wall Street Journal report that two battalions of elite Quds Forces from Iran, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, are backing up Iraqi forces.
Republicans in Congress accused Obama of ignoring a growing threat to the U.S. from the fighting in Iraq.
The Iraq War, begun with the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, cost 4,490 Americans their lives, according to Defense Department data. The price for U.S. taxpayers was more than $2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Only militias tied to Iraq’s feuding religious and ethnic groups mounted serious resistance to the southward push by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who now appear to be supported by an ad hoc coalition of Sunni Muslim tribes and militant groups opposed to the Shiite-dominated central government. With the lone exception of a helicopter assault on an insurgent position north of the central city of Tikrit, Iraqi army and security forces continued to abandon their posts whenever confronted by ISIS.
The collapse of central authority also was evident in Baghdad, where the Iraqi Parliament failed to muster a quorum to consider a request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a declaration of a state of emergency. Al-Maliki responded in a statement read on state television by accusing Sunni political parties of conspiring to destroy the state. In recent days, al-Maliki, who also serves as the defense minister, has blamed the same parties for the army’s massive desertion.