Despite some expressions of concern in Congress and a pledge from President Barack Obama that "all options are on the table" for ways to help Iraq's government beat back a determined advance by Islamist fighters, there were few signs Thursday that Washington was eager to re-engage its military in Iraq.
Pentagon officials said there was no change in the scheduled September delivery of six F-16 fighters to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, no revisions to training plans for Iraqi special forces in Jordan later this month, and no alteration in the summer timetable for leasing Apache attack helicopters to Iraq for training purposes. White House spokesman Jay Carney ruled out sending ground troops as one of the options Obama referred to when he said he didn't "rule out anything" in considering what the U.S. might do for Iraq.
"What we've seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq is going to need more help," Obama told reporters before he met in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. "It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community."
U.S. military officers voiced frustration at unfolding events in Iraq, not surprising since most of those now serving had been deployed there during the eight-year U.S. occupation that ended less than three years ago. Yet Pentagon officials and independent observers said there were few options for the U.S. military in Iraq today, both practically and politically. Many instead proposed encouraging Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, to bridge the deep political divide that has helped drive Sunni discontent with his government _ something that events in Iraq suggested was too little, too late.
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Some variation of "What is it you would propose we do?" was the response from Pentagon officials to questions about whether the United States was considering helping Iraqi security forces fend off the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which since Monday has taken control much of northern Iraq, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, and began marching toward Baghdad.
With Obama ruling out ground forces, but suggesting the United States needed to help, many floated a U.S. air campaign to bolster the Iraqi forces. Such a strike, perhaps with armed drones, could hit ISIS military targets outside urban centers, though hitting forces concentrated in cities such as Mosul would be far too risky, endangering civilians. But observers said that such a campaign, even in the outskirts, would have to be followed by Iraqi ground forces to take back the cities _ an unlikely prospect given that as many as four Iraqi divisions had abandoned their posts and slipped back into the civilian population.
On Capitol Hill, frustration with the Maliki government and its management of the security forces crossed party lines.
"It's unclear how airstrikes on our part can succeed unless the Iraqi army is willing to fight, and that's uncertain given the fact that several Iraqi army divisions have melted away," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "While all options should be considered, the problem in Iraq has not been so much a lack of direct U.S. military involvement, but a lack of reconciliation on the part of Iraqi leaders."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the United States should exact a promise of inclusivity from Maliki before agreeing to help.
"In Iraq, hopefully this is a wakeup call for Prime Minister Maliki, who has practiced exclusive politics, contrary to U.S. counsel. He needs to engage immediately in a multi-pronged approach to address the ISIL threat, which includes a commitment to political inclusion, targeted security operations against ISIL targets, and a pledge to protect all Iraqi citizens," Kaine said a statement, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. "The United States should work with allies and regional partners to provide appropriate support once there is a commitment from Maliki to this set of principles."
Others proposed that the United States provide more weapons, air systems and ammunition to fend off the ISIS threat. But the Iraqis already have lost control of an undetermined amount of U.S.-supplied weapons to ISIS forces who were quick to post purported photos of fighters driving off with U.S.-supplied Humvees, now bearing the Islamic State flag. Moreover, such systems require time to train those using them. Events appear to be moving too quickly for that.
"You can't solve this problem with just material support," said Jessica Lewis, research director for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. Moreover, "ISIS is moving fast. This is going to look different next week."
Still others suggested that the United States share more intelligence with its Iraqi counterparts. But as Lewis noted: "The shortcoming is not information. ISIS is out in the open. The shortcoming is a campaign design."
In addition to the apparent military limitations are concerns about how much the United States should help a prime minister whose divisiveness helped create the situation that allowed large swaths of Sunni-dominated areas to fall into ISIS hands. There were reports Thursday that Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards special forces, was in Baghdad to help the Maliki government mount a counterattack and protect the capital. Suleimani's presence, if confirmed, would likely stoke sectarian fears among Sunnis.
Obama himself made reference to the political problems that contributed to ISIS' rise. And in the White House summary of a phone call between Maliki and Vice President Joe Biden, who has been the U.S. point man on Iraq, the administration stressed political dialogue, saying: "The vice president underscored that it will be critically important for all of Iraq's communities to reach a lasting political accommodation and to be united in order to defeat their common enemy."
"This should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government," Obama said. "There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq. . . . And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shia and Sunni that we haven't seen so far."
Others felt that advice overlooked Maliki's own contribution to the problem. "We cannot help as long as Maliki is leading," Lewis said.
The lack of U.S. military options did not stop Republicans on Capitol Hill from attacking the president for allowing parts of Iraq to fall into jihadist hands, though there were no proposed solutions to stop it.
House Speak John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested the administration was taking a nap, while Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the president's national security team should resign.
"It's a colossal failure of American security policy," McCain said.