United States officials are "closely monitoring" a potential "humanitarian catastrophe" in northern Iraq but will not be sending combat troops back into the country, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
Earnest said the United States would cooperate with Iraqi military and Kurdish authorities in the volatile region, but he declined to respond to several questions about whether the U.S. would consider any military action to protect refugees fleeing advancing Sunni militants.
"I'm not in position to shed light on the president's thinking" on the subject, Earnest said.
Pentagon officials denied Kurdish reports Thursday afternoon that airstrikes had begun over Iraq.
White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Obama was weighing whether sufficient core U.S. interests were at stake in the situation to justify the use of American military power. Obama has been meeting with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other national security advisors as he reviews the situation.
A senior U.S. military official said the White House was considering airdrops of humanitarian supplies and perhaps U.S airstrikes to relieve the humanitarian crisis. A decision by the president could be made within days, the official said.
The Pentagon has drafted options for airdropping humanitarian supplies to aid tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly from the Yazidi religious minority and Christian groups in northern Iraq, who have fled from Sunni militants.
Airstrikes against the militants are less likely, because it would signal the U.S. is reengaging militarily in Iraq, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
Obama has authorized the use of military force to head off threatened humanitarian crises in the past, most notably in Libya. How that precedent will affect his decision-making on the current situation is unclear.
In Libya, what seemed at first to be a relatively low-cost, uncomplicated operation to protect civilians threatened by government forces quickly expanded and grew more complicated. Ultimately, the U.S. and its NATO allies backed Libyan militias that overthrew the government of Col. Moammar Kadafi. The country has seen increasingly violent chaos in the three years since his ouster.
In Iraq, U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that the threat posed by the Islamic State militia, a breakaway Al Qaeda group, cannot be solved by U.S. military action and that Iraqi leaders need to form a more inclusive government that can reach out to the country's Sunni population, a point that Earnest emphasized.
There are "no American military solutions" to the crisis, Earnest said. However, he left open the possibility that President Obama might take other actions to support humanitarian efforts in the region.
Many refugees have taken shelter in barren mountains in the area. Kurdish authorities, who control much of northern Iraq, and international aid groups have said that many of the refugees face death from thirst or starvation.
The minority communities have been "specifically targeted" in a "cold and calculated" way, Earnest said. The U.S. is "deeply concerned" about their condition and has been consulting with the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities about how to help, he said.