WASHINGTON — As Sunni militants marched toward Baghdad, President Obama on Thursday said that he was weighing whether to reengage the US military in Iraq more than two years after troops withdrew from the war-torn nation.
With a swift collapse of US-trained security forces leading to the seizure of several cities in northern Iraq, the president said his national security team was working “around the clock” to determine the US role in what he described as an “emergency situation.”
“Iraq is 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,” Obama said, responding to a question during a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia. “I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.”
A White House spokesman later stressed that Obama was referring to action such as strikes by drones or manned aircraft and was not considering sending US ground troops.
Republicans blamed Obama for policies that led to the militant takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and the threat to the capital city.
“Now they’ve taken control of Mosul, they’re 100 miles from Baghdad, and what’s the president doing?” said House Speaker John Boehner. “Taking a nap.”
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said the Obama administration pulled troops out too early from Iraq and that “history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves.” He called on Obama’s national security team to resign, and he also called on Obama to reconsider his decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
The possibility that Obama might have to apply US force in Iraq has put him in a position he worked for years to avoid. An early cornerstone of his political career was his opposition to the Iraq war, a conflict that was launched by the George W. Bush administration on the now-discredited claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly 4,500 US troops were killed in the Iraq conflict, which cost US taxpayers more than $1 trillion. The last military troops left Iraq in December 2011.
“I was elected to end wars, not to start them,” Obama said last year.
Iraq has been shattered in recent days as insurgents swarmed across a porous Syrian border, seizing Mosul and Tikrit and bearing down on Baghdad. Some 701 civilians were killed this month, including 117 on Wednesday, according to Iraq Body Count, an organization that has tracked civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has asked for help from the US, including shipments of weapons and US-led airstrikes. The New York Times reported that Maliki had asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, but had so far been rebuffed by the White House.
The administration made no announcements about what military assistance might be supplied by the United States, but did say that an additional $12.8 million was being provided for food, shelter, and medicine for a rapidly growing population of displaced people.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration is “deeply concerned about what is happening in Iraq, and we are not concerned and waiting. We are providing assistance. We are in direct touch with Prime Minister Maliki, with the leaders at the top level. I’ve just completed phone calls now with people in Iraq.”
Vice President Joe Biden spoke on Thursday morning with Maliki and expressed solidarity with the Iraqi government, according to the White House, but it is unclear whether he pledged military support. The State Department confirmed Thursday evening that US citizens in Iraq who are under contract to that country’s government were being relocated due to security concerns.
The group leading the attacks is called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which was first known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group, also called ISIS, was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, after the US-led invasion to topple Hussein in 2003.
During the height of the Iraq War, the group’s ranks flourished from recruits who flocked from across the Middle East and North Africa and who were drawn from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Muslim minority.
Zarqawi swore obedience to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2004 and proceeded to wage a bloody campaign against US troops and Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority, setting off a civil war. One of their most gruesome calling cards were videotaped beheadings. They also attacked Shia shrines.
Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006 and the group was severely weakened by the US-led “surge” of military forces initiated in 2007, in part by reducing its popular support by paying off tribal leaders in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” north and west of Baghdad.
But the group survived the US withdrawal in 2011 and it has since expanded, drawing strength and weapons from the neighboring civil war in Syria, where opposition forces that have been fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In January, the ISIS forces took control of a large swath of Anbar province in Western Iraq. In recent days, as the US-trained Iraqi army and police have fled their posts, ISIS forces have consolidated their gains in areas of northern Iraq.
The ISIS fighters have been blamed for some of the worst violence in Iraq in years, including some 8,000 civilian deaths in 2013 alone, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who helped oversee the US strategy in Iraq, said the Al Qaeda-linked force has been able to take advantage of missteps made by the Iraqi government led by Maliki, who represents the country’s Shia majority and has also established close ties with the government in neighboring Iran.
“The Maliki government is scrambling,” said Mansoor, a professor of history at Ohio State University. “They created this mess in the first place by very authoritarian and sectarian policies, which alienated large segments of the Iraqi people. . . . Now they are paying the price.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as US ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, said the Syrian war has had a “polarizing effect” on Iraq.
Maliki’s government has sent Shia militias to fight on behalf of Assad — and thus against some of the ISIS forces trying to topple him. Maliki’s government also has allowed Iran to rearm the Syrian regime via Iraqi airspace.
“The civil war [in Syria] and the failure to deal with it has encouraged this extremist movement, including foreign fighters coming in,” Khalilzad said.
At home, many Americans are exhausted with war and many politicians have misgivings about the idea of returning to Iraq.
Senator Edward J. Markey the Massachusetts Democrat, was among those who spoke cautiously.
“We have to be flexible in our response to the unfolding situation,” he said, “but we can’t repeat the mistakes of the last decade and send ground troops back to Iraq.”