The Scary Iraq News, and U.S. Options

Posted June 12, 2014 at 1:21pm
450480632 The Scary Iraq News, and U.S. Options
Iraqi police man a checkpoint in the capital Baghdad on June 12. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/Getty Images)

Iraq is reeling, with a terrorist group seizing the second biggest city, Mosul, and Kurds seizing another, Kirkuk. Yet no one agrees who’s to blame, or what can be done about it.

In Iraq

Besides taking Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria apparently just became the richest terrorist group in the world, stealing $425 million. And now the group is pledging to take the fight to Baghdad. (Iraqi state TV declared that the government has re-taken Tikrit.)

At the same time, Kurds have moved into Kirkuk. The city has been part of a regional dispute between the Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Had the Kurds and the Iraqi government been on good terms, the Kurds said, they could’ve prevented the fall of Mosul.

The danger is of full-fledged civil war, and that the country could fracture along multiple lines, between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had proposed dividing the country into three parts back in 2006, as a senator.

The Administration

In brief remarks to the press Thursday, Obama said “I don’t rule out anything” and noted that the United States has been providing some assistance to Iraq in an ongoing fashion:

“That includes, in some cases military equipment, it includes intelligence assistance, it includes a whole host of issues. But what we’ve seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

He added that there would be some “short term, immediate things that will need to be done militarily — and our national security team is looking at all the options — but this should be also a wake up call from the Iraqi government that there has to be a political component to this.” That’s a reference to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and whether he did enough to reach out to Sunnis in his government or did too much to marginalize them. ISIS is a Sunni jihadist group.

An official anonymously told AFP that the U.S. was mulling over the possibility of drone strikes. Reportedly, the administration had earlier rebuffed Maliki’s pleas for airstrikes.

Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, has already mentioned a new initiative from the president that could help. Speaking Wednesday at the Center for New American Security, she said:

The United States has been fast to provide necessary support for the people and government of Iraq under our Strategic Framework Agreement, and we are working together to roll back aggression and counter the threat that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant poses to the people of the region. Yet, as President Obama said at West Point, we must do more to strengthen our partners’ capacity to defeat the terrorist threat on their home turf by providing them the necessary training, equipment and support. That is why the President is asking Congress for a new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund of up to $5 billion to assist nations on the frontlines of terrorism to fight al-Qa’ida, its affiliates, and groups that embrace its violent extremist ideology.

White House press secretary Jay Carney did, however, rule out the use of ground troops on Thursday.

And the decision to remove troops was something the U.S. and Iraq agreed to, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday: “There was a mutual decision between the government of Iraq and the United States that it was time to pull our troops home. I’m not going to look back and — and speculate on what would have been different had things been different at the time. They obviously were not.”

The Hill

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that Obama has been “taking a nap” on Iraq. He blamed the president for not reaching a new status of forces agreement with Iraq to keep troops in the country after 2011:

“The United States has, and will continue to have, vital national interests in Iraq, but the progress made there is clearly in jeopardy. The president celebrated our exit from Iraq as a hallmark of his foreign policy agenda, but our focus should be instead on completing our mission successfully. And I would urge the president, once again, to get engaged before it’s too late.”

He did not offer specifics on how Obama should get engaged.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called on Obama to replace his entire national security team. “Drastic measures need to be taken,” he said, calling for the return of Gen. David Petraeus and others acclaimed for their leadership in Iraq when the war was in dire straits.

Some lawmakers are advancing the idea of air strikes, while others are encouraging caution.

CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski reports: “Exiting a closed briefing on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, [West Virginia Democrat] Sen. Joe Manchin III said that air strikes ‘might be the only way’ to allow ‘the Iraqi army to get itself together.’”

Relays CQ Roll Call’s Megan Scully (fuller story available to CQ subscribers): “House Armed Services Chairman Howard ‘Buck’ McKeon, R-Calif., on Thursday said he would oppose U.S. military involvement in Iraq and said the United States should pull all remaining personnel out of the country.”

Per CQ Roll Call’s Humberto Sanchez, “Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., urged caution after some of his colleagues on the panel called for air strikes after coming out of a classified committee briefing. ‘All the options should be carefully looked at; we shouldn’t knee-jerk anything,’ Levin said.” In a written statement, Levin also made pointed remarks about Maliki’s lack of outreach to Sunnis.

Congress never repealed the Iraq War authorization, by the way.