Thursday 23 October 2014

Obama weighs up options over Iraq

Published 12/06/2014 | 22:42

US President Barack Obama said Iraq will need additional assistance from the US to push back an Islamic insurgency

Less than three years after pulling American forces out of Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes, to quell an al Qaida inspired insurgency that has captured two Iraqi cities and threatened to press toward Baghdad.

"We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold," Mr Obama said in the Oval Office.

However, officials firmly ruled out putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq, which has faced resurgent violence since the US military withdrew in late 2011. A sharp burst of violence this week led to the evacuation of Americans from a major air base in northern Iraq where the US had been training security forces.

Mr Obama, in his first comments on the deteriorating situation, said it was clear Iraq needed additional assistance from the US and international community given the lightning gains by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Republican lawmakers pinned some of the blame for the escalating violence on Mr Obama's reluctance to re-engage in a conflict he long opposed.

For more than a year, the Iraqi government has been pleading with the US for additional help to combat the insurgency, which has been fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Northern Iraq has become a path for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are spreading the Syrian war's violence.

Iraqi leaders made a fresh request earlier this week, asking for a mix of drones and manned aircraft that could be used for both surveillance and active missions. Officials said the president was considering those requests and was expected to decide on a course of action within a few days.

The US is already flying unmanned aircraft over Iraq for intelligence purposes, an official said.

Short of airstrikes, the president could step up the flow of military assistance to the beleaguered Iraqi government, increase training exercises for the country's security forces and help boost Iraq's intelligence capabilities. The US has been wary of its lethal aid falling into the hands of militants or being otherwise misused.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US is sending about 12 million dollars (£7m) in humanitarian aid to help nearly a million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by recent fighting.

Vice President Joe Biden discussed the deteriorating security situation today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The White House said Mr Biden underscored that while the US stands ready to help, it would be crucial for Iraq to come up with longer-term solutions to its internal political strife.

Nearly all American troops left Iraq in December 2011 after Washington and Baghdad failed to negotiate a security agreement that would have kept a limited number of US forces in the country for a few more years at least.

Senatoe John McCain, a Republican and a frequent White House critic, called for Mr Obama's entire national security team to resign. Republican House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of "taking a nap" while conditions worsened.

But Congress appeared divided over how to respond, with some Republicans backing airstrikes and other lawmakers from both parties suggesting that was the wrong approach.

There were no calls for putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq, and Mr Obama's advisers said the president had no desire to plunge the US back into a conflict there.

"The president is mindful that the United States has sacrificed a lot in Iraq and we need to not just be taking this all back on ourselves," said Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser. "We need to come up with solutions that can enable the Iraqis to manage their internal security and their internal politics."

Press Association

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