| WASHINGTON, June 13
WASHINGTON, June 13 Two and a half years after
President Barack Obama disentangled America from a long,
unpopular war in Iraq, his options for helping the Iraqi
government stave off a militant onslaught are slim as doubts
simmer over whether even punishing air strikes would be
He will announce in coming days how far he is willing to go
in responding to the crisis in Iraq, where militants are
sweeping south towards the capital Baghdad in a campaign to
recreate a large mediaeval Islamic caliphate spanning Iraq and
While Obama has ruled out sending combat troops, U.S.
officials say options under consideration include air strikes on
Sunni insurgents threatening the Shi'ite-led government,
accelerated delivery of weapons and expanded training of Iraqi
security forces. The U.S. already has increased
intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq,
There is growing skepticism both inside and outside of the
administration whether Washington has the will, let alone the
power, to halt Iraq's slide into a civil war that could tear it
apart. The collapse of Iraq's U.S.-trained army in the north
this week has compounded concerns that fast-moving events are
unfolding beyond America's ability to control them, say
"It is a colossal mess," said one senior U.S. official.
Hoping to mitigate the risk of a failed U.S. response, the
administration may opt for a phased approach, first trying to
shore up Iraqi forces and possibly resorting to more direct
military action if the situation deteriorates further, according
to a source familiar with the White House's thinking.
The biggest questions center on whether the United States
will carry out air strikes, either with warplanes or unmanned
drones, against militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the
Levant, or ISIL, which moved swiftly to seize the northern
cities of Mosul and Tikrit this week and now threaten Baghdad.
Such attacks, an option the Pentagon described on Friday as
"kinetic strikes", could be launched from aircraft carriers or
from the sprawling U.S. air base at Incirlik in Turkey. The
carrier USS George H.W. Bush and its strike group are already
"in the region," the Pentagon said on Friday.
While a U.S. air assault could send a tough message to ISIL
forces about Washington's commitment to the survival of the
besieged Iraqi government, national security officials are
raising concerns about the U.S. ability to target roving bands
of insurgents and seriously damage their fighting capabilities.
Air strikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could
worsen the crisis, said two U.S. national security sources.
Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people.
"TARGETED" AND "PRECISE"
Obama's insistence on Friday that any military action would
be "targeted" and "precise" appears to reflect a desire for a
cautious course that avoids civilian casualties and prevents
war-weary Americans from being dragged back into Iraq's
A former U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said
that, in discussions within the administration, the White House
is seeking to limit the extent of American military involvement,
casting doubt over whether the White House would go ahead with a
Pentagon-proposed package of military equipment, training and
potential air strikes.
The former official, who requested anonymity to discuss
internal government deliberations, said Obama and his top aides
were focused on increased military sales to the government of
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and leery of proposals for drone
strikes against ISIL.
The idea of speeding up delivery of U.S. weapons to Iraqi
forces is also not without drawbacks.
While shipments of small arms and counterterrorism equipment
may be possible in the near term, large military hardware such
as F-16 jet fighters and Apache attack helicopters take much
more time to move out of the production pipeline.
Transfer of more of the Hellfire air-to-ground missiles that
Iraq has requested could be accelerated. Lockheed Martin Corp
, which makes the Hellfire, said it would work with the
U.S. government to step up those deliveries if asked.
But U.S. officials may be wary of moving too quickly in this
area, especially after seeing U.S.-supplied equipment such as
Humvee patrol vehicles and artillery fall into militants' hands
during their lightning advance this week.
The Pentagon had pushed for months, sometimes against
resistance from White House policymakers, for Iraq to be given a
package of enhanced military support to combat the insurgency.
But some analysts say proposals on the table are insufficient to
help Iraqi forces turn the tide against advancing militants.
"They (the administration) have to do something," said
former CIA and White House official Ken Pollack, who is now at
the Brookings Institution think tank.
But he said the most recent U.S. proposals amounted to
mostly a counter-terrorism package "which will basically have no
impact on the situation."
And he suggested it could even further complicate matters by
furthering the perception that the United States is squarely on
the side of Iraq's Shi'ite government, which has alienated large
swaths of the country's Sunni minority.
Obama's deliberations on the possible use of military force
in Iraq echoed last year's debate on whether to strike Syria
over the use of chemical weapons.
The president has again promised to "consult with Congress"
but he stopped short of saying he would bring the issue to a
vote by lawmakers. Congressional opposition to the Syria strike
plan contributed to Obama's decision not to go ahead with it.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Phil Stewart, Missy
Ryan, Andrea Shalal and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jason Szep
and Peter Henderson)