Obama mulls Iraq options as strife continues
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The military chiefs are planning, the President is mulling, and Congress is agitating. More and more, it looks like some kind of U.S. intervention in Iraq is coming.
President Barack Obama meets Wednesday with congressional leaders and then separately with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss options being prepared by the Pentagon, short of boots on the ground.
“The President hasn’t ruled out anything except sending U.S. combat troops into Iraq,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. He offered no timetable for a decision.
A few hours earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said they were working out details on possible U.S. steps that could include airstrikes on Sunni militants advancing through northern Iraq.
‘Full range of options’
“I share alarm about the future of Iraq, and we are developing a full range of options to help stabilize the region,” Dempsey said at a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
He and Hagel noted that final details, especially for airstrikes requested by the Iraqi government, required more intelligence on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters whose lightning sweep of Sunni territory has raised the specter of a partitioned Iraq and a broader Sunni-Shiite regional war.
They agreed with subcommittee members that the Iraq crisis amounted to a threat to U.S. interests in the region and, down the road, a possible threat to the U.S. homeland if northern Iraq and neighboring Syria become a safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a conservative hawk critical of what he considers to be a weak U.S. foreign policy under Obama, noted that ISIS fighters have threatened to attack the United States.
“Although currently a regional threat, they do have aspirations to attack Western interests,” Dempsey said, calling the safe haven outcome outlined by Graham a “high-risk scenario.”
“Yeah, to our homeland being attacked by this group,” Graham countered, to which Dempsey responded, “not at this time but over time.”
When Graham asked about possible U.S. airstrikes on the militant forces, Dempsey confirmed reports that the Iraqi government had requested them and added that it was “in our national security interest to counter” the ISIS fighters “wherever we find them.”
At the White House, Carney made clear that Obama’s “ultimate objective” was to protect U.S. national security interests and prevent the region from becoming a safe haven for ISIS extremists.
“Any action that he might contemplate when it comes to … the use of military force will be to deal with the immediate and medium-term threat posed by ISIL,” Carney said, noting that 170 U.S. military personnel have been sent to Baghdad to assist in securing embassy personnel inside Iraq, while another 100 moved into the region to “provide airfield management security and logistic support, if required.”
Like other administration officials, he referred to the militants by the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, rather than the alternate common translation of the name that includes Syria.
A draft list of possible ISIS targets in Iraq is being constantly reviewed and revised with the latest intelligence, typical of any preliminary targeting operation, according to U.S. military officials who spoke on condition of not being identified.
Compiling the draft list does not signal that Obama will authorize such strikes, and several administration officials said the President has yet to make a final decision.
Several military sources also confirmed to CNN the start of manned reconnaissance flights over Iraq to collect up-to-the-minute intelligence on ISIS movements and positions. Unmanned reconnaissance flights have been going on for several days.
In order to use precision-guided weapons, satellite coordinates generally would have to be loaded into them well in advance. That means the Defense Department needs to be ready to move quickly if Obama announces a decision to strike.
The “kinetic” option against ISIS targets could include dropping precision-guided bombs from manned aircraft flying overhead, using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from Navy ships in the Arabian Gulf or using drones to fire missiles.
Several military officials told CNN the drone option was considered the least desirable because they fire against relatively small specific targets such as vehicles or individual suspected terrorists.
For days, military sources have said ISIS fighters are dispersed and mixed in with local populations, making them difficult to target precisely with airstrikes.
Washington political fight
On Capitol Hill, political leaders sparred over the Iraq crisis in a debate intensified by the hyperpartisan atmosphere of an election year.
House Speaker John Boehner demanded that Obama lay out a “broader strategy” for how the U.S. should deal with the growing sectarian violence in Iraq when he and other top congressional leaders meet with the President at the White House.
Boehner sidestepped a question about whether he supported airstrikes and said it’s up to the President to lay out what to do next.
“I’m looking for the overall strategy that will help secure the gains that we have made,” Boehner said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi also declined to give any specific suggestions for what course the administration should pursue in Iraq but insisted, “Absolutely, positively, no boots on the ground.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, spoke out forcefully against sending U.S. service members into the middle of sectarian strife.
“This is an Iraqi civil war, and it is time for Iraqis to resolve it themselves,” he said on the Senate floor. “It is not worth the blood of American service members. It is not worth the monetary cost to the American taxpayer.”
By Barbara Starr, Deirdre Walsh and Tom Cohen
CNN’s Paul Courson, Jim Sciutto and Laura Koran contributed to this report.