In a statement from the South Lawn on Friday, President Obama made clear that his administration is deeply worried about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and that he believes the country is unlikely to resolve the crisis without outside support.“We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat into Iraq,” the president affirmed. “But I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq security forces and I’ll be reviewing those options in the days ahead.”
Obama made the remarks before leaving the White House for North Dakota, where he will meet with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni militant group that was kicked out of al-Qaida in February for being too violent, is driving the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Its campaign in Iraq began in the final days of 2013 in the embattled Anbar province, and the group has taken over major Iraqi cities with alarming speed in the last week.
The president didn’t announce any immediate action, but rather said that the intelligence-gathering process will take a period of days. “People should not anticipate that this is something that is going to happen overnight,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have good eyes on the situation there.”
CNN reported just before the statement that the Defense Department is planning to move the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush into the Persian Gulf to give the U.S. options for possible strikes.
While the president said the U.S. will be monitoring the situation closely, he added that “ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems.”
Obama did not seem too optimistic about a hasty conclusion to the conflict. “This is a regional problem, and it’s going to be a long-term problem,” he said. “And what we’re going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure we’re going after terrorists who could arm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland.”
The militant group has been easily pushing its way through major Iraqi cities. “Four of Iraq’s 14 army divisions virtually abandoned their posts, stripped off their uniforms, and fled when confronted in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit by militant groups,” The New York Times reports. The U.S. has spent $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2012.
“The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists,” the president said Friday, “indicates that there a problem with morale, a problem in terms of commitment, and ultimately that is rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country.”
Obama had said Thursday afternoon that Iraq will need more help from the U.S., and that nothing was off the table. “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,” he said. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later clarified that the administration is not considering sending ground troops to the country.
The administration has so far denied Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s requests for U.S. air strikes against extremists.
“This should be a wake-up call,” Obama said Friday. “Iraq’s leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together.”
Earlier Friday, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a call to arms to fight the Sunni militants moving through the country. The presence of elite Iranian troops and the involvement of Kurdish peshmerga forces from the north have complicated matters further. The influx of Shiite and Kurdish militias into the fight with ISIS risks turning the conflict into a sectarian fight, complicating any response that the U.S. could have as the conflict begins to look like a civil war.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of ISIS.