The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

June 14, 2014

Obama sets high bar for military action in Iraq

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama vowed Friday that the United States would not be “dragged back” into military action in Iraq as long as leaders in Baghdad refuse to reform a political system that has left the county vulnerable to a fast-moving Islamic insurgency.

The president ruled out the possibility of putting American troops on the ground in Iraq, but said he was considering a range of other options drawn up by the Pentagon. Administration officials said those include strikes using drones or manned aircrafts, as well as boosts in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts.

The U.S., which routinely has an array of ships in the region, has the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and an accompanying Navy cruiser in the northern Arabian Sea, while two Navy destroyers from the Bush strike group have been operating in the Persian Gulf. The ships carry Tomahawk missiles, which could reach Iraq, and the Bush is carrying fighter jets that could also easily get to Iraq.

Still, the president appeared to leave himself a clear off-ramp by making military action contingent on a “serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences” between the nation’s Sunnis and Shiites.

“We can’t do it for them,” he said. “And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed.”

U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Baghdad is unlikely to fall, according to officials who were briefed on the matter but could not be quoted by name because the briefings were classified. Iraq’s Shiite soldiers who deserted en masse because they were unwilling to fight and die for Sunni towns such as Tikrit are much more likely to fight for Baghdad and its Shiite-dominated national government, U.S. intelligence officials believe. U.S. agencies also assess that the units around Baghdad are marginally better.

Officials said they estimate there are several thousand insurgents but well short of 10,000.

The security situation in Iraq rapidly deteriorated this week as the al-Qaida-inspired group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant quickly overran Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases — often meeting little resistance from state security forces. The militants have vowed to press on to Baghdad.

The rebellion has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrew its military in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. Obama said the militants also pose a threat to U.S. national security interests, which could ultimately be used as a justification for a unilateral American strike.

Over the past several days, the United States has urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make his government more inclusive and avoid further alienating Iraqi Sunnis who are eyeing the insurgency as an alternative to supporting the Shiite leadership in Baghdad. That message was delivered to al-Maliki in a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden and also personally by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, who has years-long ties to the prime minister and is in Iraq this week to help negotiate a solution

Obama suggested it could take several days to gather the intelligence necessary to make a final decision on the U.S. response to the situation. Following his statement, Obama departed on a four-day trip to North Dakota and California. Officials said he had no plans to cut it short.

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