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Mass. lawmakers urge Iraq vote before action

“I am not in favor of inching troops there more and more,” said Representative John Tierney.

John Blanding/Globe Staff/File

“I am not in favor of inching troops there more and more,” said Representative John Tierney.

WASHINGTON — The Massachusetts congressional delegation, which has expressed misgivings about renewed US military involvement in the Iraqi conflict, is now calling on President Obama to seek congressional approval before carrying out even limited air strikes against militants.

The White House has said that while Obama will consult with Congress about any military action, prior authorization is not needed, citing previous congressional votes supporting the use of force to confront terrorism.

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However, all nine US House members from Massachusetts said this week they will sign an open letter, along with nearly 70 other lawmakers from both parties, that urges a vote before any introduction of US combat power. A similar letter has not been circulated in the Senate.

Despite Obama’s assurances that no ground troops will be reinserted into the conflict, concerns about an escalating US role have developed because of Obama’s decision to send US military advisers, security personnel, warships, and aircraft to the region, along with US arms shipments to the embattled Iraqi government.

“There is a little thing called the Constitution,” said Representative John F. Tierney of Salem, the top Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms national security panel, noting that only Congress has the power to declare war. “I am not in favor of inching troops there more and more.”

In addition to Tierney, the other members of the Massachusetts delegation backing the call for a congressional vote are Representatives Richard Neal of Springfield; Michael Capuano of Cambridge; Katherine Clark of Melrose; Stephen Lynch of South Boston; James McGovern of Worcester; Joseph P. Kennedy III of Brookline; William Keating of Bourne, and Niki Tsongas of Lowell, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee

“I want [the president] to engage in Congress before engaging in some direct military action,” Tsongas said in an interview. “We do have a lot of Americans there and it is a very dynamic situation.”

The United Nations reported this week that at least 2,400 people died in the fighting in Iraq in June, making it the deadliest month in years.

In response, the Obama administration has beefed up its security forces to protect the American embassy and the Baghdad airport, including with helicopters and armed drones, and dispatched more military advisers to assist the Iraqi government, bringing the total to 700.

The misgivings about getting embroiled in another military quagmire stem in part from the prior experience in Iraq, where US troops were withdrawn in 2011. At the same time, delegation members said they are mindful of new fears about Iraq becoming a failed state and in the process possibly a new incubator for global terrorism.

Some members said they are open to the possibility of limited US action to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which earlier this week declared an independent caliphate based on strict Islamic law in the large territory it has seized.

Kennedy said he is willing to listen to administration officials “if they are able to lay about a strategy as to why ISIS poses a threat and how air strikes or drone strikes or a special forces mission can help target that.”

But he said “the administration has yet to lay out to me what that strategy looks like and how our military would play a role. And what does the end game look like?”

Even Lynch, who is widely considered the most hawkish voice in the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation and who supported the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, said he worries that even targeted air strikes against militants could backfire.

“There are no easy answers,” Lynch, who has traveled to Iraq more than a dozen times over the past decade, said in an interview.

“I don’t understand how you can . . . discriminate between ISIS fighters and civilians . . . I think it would be far better if we can coordinate a multinational force there and try to coordinate and direct the Iraqi defense forces in a way that gets the job done.”

Keating, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a prepared statement that he believes the Obama administration must “proceed with the highest degree of caution” before getting directly involved.

McGovern, an early foe of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said in an interview: “it is futile to throw the US military at a problem that has no military solution. Are we going to be taking sides in a sectarian and religious war? We need to debate these issues.”

Capuano, who is one of the representatives most leery about US military involvement, said that he doesn’t think the Islamic State “poses a direct threat to the United States. Are they good for the United States? No. But there is a difference.”

Senator Edward Markey, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that the United States has “a strong national security interest in keeping Al Qaeda-type terrorist organizations like ISIS from establishing safe havens,” insisting that the United States “must remain vigilant and get the best intelligence we can.”

But to justify direct US military involvement in the conflict, Markey said, the Obama administration has to make “an extremely compelling case.” Markey’s office said he, too, believes that Obama should seek prior congressional approval.

Senator Elizabeth Warren also declined a request for an interview but said in a statement that “I remain deeply skeptical of US military action in Iraq,” adding that she believes the only solution to the crisis is through a negotiated settlement among the country’s political factions.

The Iraqi conflict has pitted some of Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims against the Shi’ite majority that controls the central government.

As the number of fighters who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State has grown, efforts to establish a more inclusive Iraqi government to heal some of the divisions have so far failed.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender
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