Facing the threat of sectarian conflict engulfing the Middle East, President Obama indicated Thursday that he may order direct military action in Iraq, a step he has ruled out since the U.S. ended its long war there.
A number of former administration officials and private analysts have been urging drone or airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-inspired militant group whose fighters were sweeping toward Baghdad. In an Oval Office appearance, Obama said the militants' gains indicate "Iraq's going to need more help" from the United States and other nations.
Asked whether he would consider airstrikes, Obama said "I don't rule out anything," adding that in the continuing U.S. collaboration with the Iraqi government "there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily."
Other U.S. officials have said they do not foresee combat troops returning to Iraq.
An order of U.S. airstrikes would mark a dramatic shift for the administration, which has insisted for years that Iraq has been capable since the 2011 U.S. military departure of guaranteeing its own security.
But ISIS appears poised to control most of the formerly Sunni Muslim areas of the country, up to the outer suburbs of Baghdad, as well as territory in eastern Syria. Its advances raise the threat of sectarian war that could lead to the disintegration of Iraq and the destabilizing of U.S. allies such as Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
ISIS fighters fanned out in several directions Thursday from their new stronghold in Mosul, capturing the town of Sinjar to the west near the Syrian border and extending their reach as far south as Tarmiya, just 30 miles outside Baghdad. The militants already control much of the territory north and west of central Iraq, as well as the longtime Sunni insurgent strongholds of Fallouja, Ramadi, Tikrit and Anbar province.
Many Iraqi army troops left their positions ahead of the ISIS sweep, abandoning their weapons and armored vehicles to the invaders. Masked militants were seen driving around Mosul in a U.S.-made Humvees and trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns after raiding the government's stores of weapons and vehicles.
Elsewhere, forces of the Iraqi Kurds rushed to defend the oil-rich disputed city of Kirkuk from ISIS insurgents, further sharpening fear that the country would break into its Kurdish, Shiite Muslim and Sunni areas.
Three planeloads of Americans, mostly contractors, were being evacuated from the city of Balad, about an hour northwest of Baghdad, where they had been involved in a program to train Iraqi forces on American military equipment, the Associated Press reported.
The Middle East has been increasingly riven by a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Sunni-led Saudi Arabia wrestling for regional influence with Shiite-dominated Iran. Al Qaeda and its affiliates and splinter groups are Sunni; Iran has expanded Shiite influence through such groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Obama is under pressure to step up U.S. action in part because other players, such as Iran, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states, may decide they need to become more active if Washington hangs back. The U.S. desperately wants to avoid a deeper Iranian influence in Iraq, at a time when Tehran's power is already considerable.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has already signaled a keen interest in halting the Sunni militants' advances, this week urging Shiite men to take up arms to stop it. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cut short a speech Thursday in Tehran, saying he had to meet with his National Security Council on the events in Iraq.
"We will not be silent," Rouhani said, warning that Iran will "confront perpetrators of violence and brutality in the region."
Unconfirmed reports said that Iranian forces were already engaged in the effort to counter ISIS in Iraq.
"Obama's first thought has been: 'I don't want to become hostage to these events in the Middle East,' "said Robert Danin, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the more he tries to leave it the more it sucks him back in."
The administration has been increasing arms aid, intelligence sharing and training to the Iraqis, yet the Iraqi security force remains weak and ineffective, and many outside analysts believe that even a sharp increase of current U.S. activities would not shift the balance any time soon.
The United States lost 4,486 troops in the war, which most Americans say in polls was not worth the cost. The last forces withdrew at the end of 2011 after the U.S. and Iraqi governments failed to agree on a deal that would have authorized a U.S. force to remain in Iraq to help protect it.
"Absent immediate airstrikes, the country could go down the drain in a dramatic fashion," said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Army officer who was Obama's ambassador to Iraq in the first term. "The risk here is that the militants take all the Sunni areas and besiege Baghdad, the Iranians come, and the Kurds decide to break away."
Despite Obama's words, some analysts said that the president, in dealing with the Syrian civil war, has often implied that he was preparing direct military action and then done less than expected. The arming of the moderate Syrian opposition has always been slower and less substantial than expected, they noted.
Obama threatened action against Syria if it crossed a "red line" of deploying chemical weapons, then held back when evidence emerged that Syrian President Bashar Assad had done just that.
Obama's language "sounds like the kind of smoke screen they've always put up to excuse inaction," said Kenneth Pollack, a Mideast specialist at the Brookings Institution who encouraged President George W. Bush to invade Iraq and has continued to urge a more active U.S. approach.
U.S. Central Command, which would carry out any military operation in Iraq, has been looking at options for airstrikes and other military moves short of putting in large numbers of ground troops to slow the militants' advance, but the planning "is not very advanced," said a senior U.S. military officer, who agreed to discuss the deliberations in return for anonymity.
Options include Air Force Reaper drones armed with bombs and missiles, as well as fighter jets, to attack militants on the ground, the official said. There are hundreds of U.S. fighters, bombers and refueling tankers based in the region, including in Qatar, that could begin flying operations over Iraq in a matter of days, the official said.
Since the Air Force would not have to worry about the enemy shooting down U.S. planes, there would be no need for initial bombing to destroy air defenses.
It's not clear yet whether Iraq's government is prepared to let U.S. aircraft fly from bases in its territory, or whether the White House is prepared to consider sending support personnel and special operations teams to assist Iraq's military. Even without U.S. personnel in Iraq, the Air Force could quickly ramp up operations, the officer said.
"Can we have an impact? Sure," the officer said.
Obama could face strong pushback from Congress and other domestic leaders to direct military action.
One sign of the antiwar mood came from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) who condemned Obama for allowing the militants' advance, urged the administration to provide the Iraqis the equipment and training they seek, yet demurred on airstrikes.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that though the Iraq situation was "troubling … the American people have been exhausted with wars."
Iraq's former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, warned in an interview with the BBC against launching another foreign military intervention, saying airstrikes could "add fuel to the fire."
"The international community should seek another alternative to get out of this mess," he said. "It is not a matter of creating yet again a big war in and around Iraq."