The United States is not ruling out air strikes to assist the Iraqi government fight a growing radical Islamist insurgency, President Barack Obama said on Thursday, raising the possibility of the first American military intervention in Iraq since the end of the U.S.-led war.
Obama was asked whether Washington would consider drone strikes to combat violence that threatens to break up the country. "Iraq is going to need more help. It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community," he said.
"My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them. I don't rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold," he said.
Speaking to reporters at the White House as he met Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Obama said the Iraqis needed to do more to bridge sectarian divides in the country, but he noted military action was needed right away.
"It's fair to say that in our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily, and our national security team is looking at all the options," Obama said.
"But this should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said later that the United States was not contemplating sending ground troops to Iraq.
Obama won the White House in 2008 largely on the back of his opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. American troops returned home under his tenure, and are preparing to leave Afghanistan, where the U.S. combat mission is slated to come to a close at the end of this year.
Critics, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, said Obama had contributed to the unrest in Iraq by failing to negotiate a deal under which the United States would have left a small force there after pulling out troops at the end of 2011.
Boehner urged Obama to deliver military and other aid promised to the government in Baghdad. "What's the president doing? Taking a nap?" he said.
The Obama administration has highlighted recent U.S. support including delivery of 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, machine guns and other weapons for the Iraqi Security Forces. It also notified Congress recently of an additional sale of $1 billion in arms that is now in a 30-day review period, according to the White House.
Iraqi Kurdish forces took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday, after government troops abandoned their posts in the face of a march by Sunni rebels toward Baghdad following their capture of the country's second city, Mosul.
The insurgents, from an al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which operates in Iraq and neighboring Syria, overran the city of Tikrit on Wednesday.
It also closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country at Baiji, making further gains in a rapid military advance against the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.
The White House said the refinery was still controlled by the government, but the broader unrest has led to increasingly urgent discussions in Washington about what to do.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was "prepared to make key decisions in short order" and Vice President Joe Biden told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a phone call that Washington was ready to intensify and accelerate security support.
The potential for U.S. military intervention in the country alarmed some of Obama's fellow Democrats.
"I don't think there's any appetite in our country for us to become engaged in military activity in Iraq," said Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. "War begets war. It's just not a good idea."
But some other lawmakers said they would support U.S. air strikes to help the Iraqi military.
"There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American air power. The Iraqi army is on the verge of collapse," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters after leaving a classified briefing for the Senate Armed Services Committee by U.S. Department of Defense officials.
"It's in our national security interest to intervene."
Obama repeated his mantra that the United States would act militarily if it was within its national security interests.
The discussion had not advanced to the point where the administration had asked Congress for additional or emergency funds for operations in Iraq, congressional aides said.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell, David Storey, and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)