Iraq crisis: President Obama weighs up US response to jihadist attacks

Reports claim US drones have been flying secretly over contested sections of Iraqi territory since last year

US editor

President Barack Obama tonight refused to rule out taking military action against jihadist militant fighters that have captured two major cities in northern Iraq and appeared to have their sights on the capital, Baghdad

As the scale of the crisis in Iraq became clear, officials said a variety of options were on the table to help the Baghdad government repel the insurgents but offered no details. They could range from rushing additional aid to the Iraqi military, including hardware such as fighter jets that are already in the pipeline, to ordering military strikes.

“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,” Mr Obama said when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. The Associated Press cited an unnamed senior US official as confirming that ordering unmanned drone missions with strike capability in Iraq is under consideration but that no decisions had yet been taken

Earlier, reports surfaced that the Iraqi government had as long ago as last year approached Washington about the possible use of US drones to target insurgent encampments but was rebuffed. However, the Wall Street Journal reported that US drones had in fact been flying secretly over contested sections of Iraqi territory since last year in a purely surveillance capacity to try to get some insight as to the insurgents’ positions and capacity.

Officials said that Vice President Joe Biden called Iraq’s embattled Prime Minster, Nouri al-Maliki, by telephone to discuss the crisis and how the US might help counter the assault of fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). But there was no suggestion of ground troops being deployed to Iraq.

The apparent hesitation to authorise direct military intervention in Iraq meanwhile drew sharp criticism from some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill. Emerging from a classified meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain said President Barack Obama had “fewer and fewer” options to deal with the crisis and called on him to “get rid of his national security team, which has been a total failure”.

Mr McCain, a leading hawk who was among those who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the troop surge in 2007, said that the unravelling of Iraq amounted to “the greatest threat since the Cold War”. He has repeatedly criticised the US withdrawal from Iraq, which had been a central pledge of Mr Obama when he campaigned for president, that was completed in 2011. “Just because you say a war has ended, doesn’t mean it’s over,” he said.

The US has spent $15 billion in bolstering the army of Prime Minister al-Maliki on training and on military hardware, including weapons and planes. In a statement late Wednesday, the White House said it was reaffirming “our commitment to assist the Iraqi people as they confront the threat that Isil poses to Iraq and the region”. It added: “The US will continue to provide, and as required increase, assistance to the Government of Iraq to help build Iraq’s capacity to effectively and sustainably stop Isil’s efforts to wreak havoc in Iraq and the region”.

But the White House would clearly be reluctant to return to the battlefield in Iraq, a step that would effectively reverse the pledge to end the war there made by President Obama. It would also go against US public opinion which is unlikely even in the current circumstances to evince any support for returning to the country. Additionally, the US will see little advantage in fighting on behalf of Mr al-Maliki whose credibility as Prime Minsters is so weak.

According to the New York Times, Mr al-Maliki began asking for aerial support, either with drones or fighter aircraft, against the insurgents as early last year. In a meeting with top US officials on 11 May this yeaer, Mr al-Maliki asked that he be allowed to use US-supplied drones against rebel camps. But failing that, he said he would be willing to allow the US to conduct its own strikes on his behalf with drones or aircraft. He reportedly made a similar request in a phone call with Vice President Biden several days later. No such US commitment was forthcoming. 

There was no confirmation by the White House that such requests had been made, however. “We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council told the Times. “The current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront the Islamic extremists.”

The overrunning of vast swathes of Iraq by the al-Qa’ida-inspired insurgents may meanwhile complicate the second leg of Mr Obama’s drive to reduce America’s overseas military commitments – the planned withdrawal of almost all US troops from Afghanistan. “I would hope the president would take some of the lessons we are seeing in Iraq and not repeat them in Afghanistan” Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness