Senators — Republican and Democratic alike — have begun openly calling for renewed U.S. air strikes to keep al-Qaida-inspired insurgents from Baghdad, as security throughout Iraq deteriorates rapidly.
Emerging from a classified briefing, senators ruled out sending U.S. ground troops back into the war zone. But many urged President Obama to consider other options to aid Nuri al-Maliki's weak government.
"Iraq is collapsing as I speak," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. "There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American air power. I would urge the administration to get all of our people out now. We've got another Benghazi in the making."
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said air strikes "might be the only way" to hold off the insurgents, believed to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while the Iraqis regroup.
The attacks and the Iraqis' pathetic response took the U.S. government by surprise, the senators said. A number of Iraqi military divisions collapsed as soldiers abandoned their weapons and uniforms, provided by the U.S. government so that they could defend themselves after American troops left.
"The president should get rid of his entire national security team, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "I am not calling for air strikes. I am calling for the advice and counsel of the smartest people who won the war in Iraq before the president of the United States lost it."
Most senators, however, said they wanted to work closely with the president on a plan. At the briefing, the senators were told the Iraqi government had requested U.S. assistance.
"If they call for aid, we should provide it," said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. "This was the concern, that they would not be able to themselves deal with this kind of problem."
However, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, was cautious about U.S. involvement.
"I'm calling for a very thoughtful, careful, serious look at all the options," Levin said, adding in an emailed statement, "It's unclear how air strikes 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."
Levin was among a number of senators who blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for failing to unite the Islamic factions in the nation before they turned to violence, and said it is unclear U.S. involvement would change that.