As Islamic militants pushed closer to Baghdad, President Obama on Friday ruled out sending American ground troops into Iraq or engaging in any long-term military campaign, saying, "We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back in."
Obama said he would consider limited military options in coming days, but warned that U.S. airstrikes would have little lasting effect unless Iraqi leaders eased the country's sectarian divisions. Obama put off any immediate intervention to assist Iraq's beleaguered government.
"We are not going to be able to do it for them," Obama said.
Although the Pentagon has increased surveillance flights over militant-held areas to develop targeting plans for potential drone strikes and bombers, the president's comments seemed designed to send a clear message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that the White House is willing to stand on the sidelines unless he makes the fundamental changes to his government that he has rejected for years.
The turmoil, 21/2 years after the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, "could eventually pose a threat to America and its interests," Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House after meeting with his national security advisors. "So the United States will do our part. But understand that ultimately it's up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems."
Iraq has edged closer to an all-out sectarian conflict as fighters with the resurgent Al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have seized a broad arc of territory, routing parts of four Iraqi army divisions. Thousands of government troops have shed their uniforms, abandoned their weapons and fled.
Any American role would be complicated because Iran has joined the fray, pledging to help the Iraqi government. U.S. officials responded warily to questions about whether they would cooperate with Iran to push back the militants, a common enemy.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Maliki on Friday, and Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard force said it was prepared to join the fight to stave off the Iraqi insurgents. Iranian advisors reportedly already are working with the Iraqi military.
Early this week, ISIS fighters conquered Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities, and rolled over towns and cities from the Syrian border as far south as the outskirts of Baghdad, the capital.
The Sunni Muslim militants took control Friday of two more cities, Jalula and Saadiya, about an hour's drive northeast of Baghdad. Gunmen offered government troops safe passage from the area in exchange for leaving their weapons and vehicles, residents reported.
The growing chaos prompted a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric to call on his followers to take up arms. Sheik Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, who represents Iraq's most revered spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani told worshipers during Friday prayers that Iraqis need to "fight the terrorists" who seek to rule much of Iraq and Syria under Islamic sharia law.
The Defense Ministry in Baghdad announced the opening of 23 recruitment centers across eight Iraqi provinces to arm and deploy volunteers.
The widening conflict has fed on the growing resentment of Maliki, who has held power since 2006. His Shiite Muslim government has marginalized the Sunni minority, failing to provide fair access to jobs, services and the nation's oil wealth.
As a result, the militants have been welcomed as liberators in some Sunni areas. U.S. officials consider ISIS a highly potent extremist group, and its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, a potential successor to Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Commission said ISIS fighters were reported to be executing Iraqi soldiers in Mosul as well as others identified as loyal to the Baghdad government.
The Pentagon is considering several options, including speeding up deliveries of equipment to Iraq's armed forces, sharing more intelligence to help Iraqi forces target insurgents and launching U.S. airstrikes by armed drones and manned aircraft, U.S. officials said.
Unless the security situation improves, the Pentagon also is likely to propose temporarily sending in small special operations teams to advise Iraqi troops and coordinate airstrikes. Doing so would force Obama to go back on his vow not to put troops on the ground.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said military planners were preparing "a wide range" of options for Obama aimed at "breaking the momentum" of the Islamist insurgents, whom he said had thousands of fighters.
"Clearly they are a fairly significant threat, and clearly not every unit of the Iraqi security forces have risen to meet that threat," he said.
The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, now off the coast of Pakistan, could be sent in coming days to the Persian Gulf in preparation for possible airstrikes in Iraq, Pentagon officials said.
The roughly four dozen FA-18 fighters aboard the Bush would augment hundreds of U.S. fighters, bombers, drones and refueling aircraft based in Qatar and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. It's also possible the U.S. would seek to temporarily base aircraft in Iraq, officials said.
Obama's misgivings about sending the U.S. military back to Iraq were obvious, however. He considers ending America's eight-year war there as a major achievement of his White House tenure.
Moreover, administration officials say, the limited military campaign under consideration may only buy time, not stop the insurgents. It will be difficult to target militant groups without risking civilian casualties, and may only temporarily delay their advance.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested that an international response is required.
"Every country that understands the importance of stability in the Middle East needs to be concerned about what's happening," Kerry said.
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said London would not join another "military intervention" in Iraq, although it might help Baghdad with military equipment and advice.
Republicans in Congress laid blame for the widening insurgency on the White House failure to reach an agreement with Maliki to keep a small force of U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, when the agreement authorizing their presence expired.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) condemned the White House for doing "almost nothing" to stop the militants' advance. But he offered no advice on what steps Obama should take.
Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned in a joint statement that the insurgents are threatening to create "the largest terrorist safe haven in history."
They urged Obama to order military action without waiting for political concessions from Maliki. "A delayed or weak response from the United States will only deepen the Iraqi government's dependence on Iran, and destroy the prospects of national reconciliation," they said.
McCain also called on Obama to fire his national security team and bring back Gen. David H. Petraeus and other military leaders who led the troop-buildup strategy that was credited with turning the course of the war four years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
McCain also said, "We've got to plan not only on the military side of it but on the political side of it as well because it's clear that the Sunnis have been alienated completely by Maliki and the way he's handled his position of leadership in Iraq."
Colin Kahl of Georgetown University, a senior Defense Department official responsible for Iraq during Obama's first term, said Sunni tribes and Maliki's opponents in Iraq's Anbar province are backing the insurgency, paving the way for the fighters' rapid advances.
"Maliki is facing an existential crisis," Kahl said. "He has to share power, has to reach out to the tribes in Anbar and probably provide them with bags of money. He may have to leave office. If he ever is going to make tough choices, it's now."
Cloud and Hennessey reported from Washington, and special correspondent Bulos from Irbil, Iraq. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.