America scrambles to aid Iraq

By Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt / New York Times News Service

Key military players in Iraq

• ISIS: The jihadist group has a fighting force that is probably larger than the 10,000 or so members estimated in most reports. They are well-armed and have boosted their arsenal after looting equipment from Mosul’s main army bases. In every city they overrun, ISIS frees hundreds of prison inmates, some of whom may be like-minded militants.

• Iraqi army: The Iraqi army in Mosul wilted in the face of the ISIS assault. Despite billions of dollars spent by the United States in training the post-Hussein army, it suffers from poor organization and morale. Two Iraqi divisions — an estimated 30,000 troops — stationed near Mosul reportedly ran from an initial ISIS offensive that may have numbered just 800 men. The divisive rule of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has, in part, been blamed for the hopeless security situation in the country’s Sunni-majority areas.

• Kurds: The autonomous government in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan has rallied its own forces, known as the pesh merga, to combat ISIS. Although the Kurds have had an adversarial relationship with Baghdad for quite some time, reports suggest that they are now more closely coordinating efforts to counter ISIS. They possess some light armored vehicles as well as artillery and will probably be the key to winning back Mosul.

— The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The White House, confronted by an unexpected crisis on a battlefield it thought it had left behind, scrambled Thursday to reassure Iraq that it would help its beleaguered army fend off militants who have overrun much of the country and now threaten Baghdad.

Recognizing what one official described as an “urgent emergency situation,” President Barack Obama and his aides moved on multiple fronts.

A senior official said the president was actively considering U.S. airstrikes against the militant groups. Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to express U.S. support. And Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers about what one senator later described as a “grave situation.”

In his only public comments on Iraq, Obama said his national security staff was meeting around the clock, but the frenzy of activity has yet to produce a tangible U.S. response — attesting to how swiftly this crisis has erupted and how it has left a stunned White House groping for a response.

The chaotic situation in Iraq showed no sign of letup Thursday as emboldened Sunni militants who seized two important Iraqi cities this week moved closer to Baghdad while Kurdish forces poured into the strategic northern city of Kirkuk after it was evacuated by government forces.

Airstrikes were only one of several options being weighed by the president, according to the senior official, who cautioned that the president had made no decision on military action. The airstrikes, the official said, could be delivered either by unmanned drones or warplanes.

“I don’t rule out anything,” Obama said, speaking in the Oval Office after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, “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.” He said he was watching the fast-moving events with “a lot of concern.”

For Obama, ordering airstrikes would be a symbolically momentous step, returning the United States to a combat role in Iraq 21/2 years after he pulled out the last U.S. soldier, ending the nation’s involvement in a war that left more than 4,400 Americans dead.

The possibility of coming to Iraq’s rescue raises a host of thorny questions for Obama, who has steadfastly resisted being drawn into sectarian strife in Iraq or its neighbor, Syria. Republican lawmakers accused him of being caught flat-footed by the crisis and of hastening this outcome by not leaving an adequate U.S. force behind after 2011.

Reports that Iran has sent its paramilitary Quds force to help the struggling Iraqi army battle the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, raised the awkward possibility that the United States could find itself allied with Iran in shoring up an unpopular Shiite government in Baghdad. The White House said it was aware of the reports, but did not confirm them.

Obama insisted he had been monitoring the threat from Sunni militant groups for several months. The United States, he said, had supplied Iraq with military equipment and intelligence.

Until now, though, the White House has rebuffed several requests from al-Maliki for the United States to conduct airstrikes against the staging areas of the militant groups, north and west of Baghdad, where extremists have flowed across the border from Syria.

In the past two days, Obama acknowledged, it was clear that the United States needed to go further. “Iraq’s going to need more help,” he said. “It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

“In our consultations with the Iraqis,” he said, “there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily. But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.”

The president said the crisis confirmed his decision — articulated in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy — to reorient U.S. counterterrorism strategy from fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a more diffuse set of terrorist groups, some linked with al-Qaida, that stretch from the Middle East to North Africa.

On Capitol Hill, however, the images of Baghdad under threat from Islamic militants fanned a political firestorm. Speaker John Boehner warned that the progress in Iraq was “clearly in jeopardy,” and said Obama had been caught “taking a nap.”

Democrats said the strife was the result of former President George W. Bush’s misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“One act of violence provokes another act of violence,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. “And here we are.”

Senators on the Armed Services Committee emerging from a two-hour, classified briefing on Iraq appeared stunned by what they heard from a senior Pentagon official, two senior Defense Intelligence Agency analysts and the three-star general in charge of security cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“Needless to say, it’s a grave situation,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

A State Department spokeswoman said U.S. contractors working on foreign military sales had been moved from their base north of Baghdad by their companies. But diplomats and staff members at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq had not been moved, according to the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki.

While experts said leaving behind a residual force of several thousand U.S. troops would have helped the Iraqi army tactically, some doubt it would have prevented the sectarian forces that are threatening to tear the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish blocs.

“In the long run, I’m not sure it would have made a difference with the forces pushing for the disintegration of Iraq,” said Gen. Amos Yadlin, a retired head of Israeli military intelligence who is now the executive director of Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies.

Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said U.S. airstrikes would “help them deal with the symptoms of the disease, but the disease is rooted in Syria.”