Iraq Insurgency Turns Up Heat in White House War Room

Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad Wednesday. Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad Wednesday. Karim Kadim/AP

Pressure on the White House to intervene in the crisis in Iraq intensified Thursday as President Obama's national security team was considering military options to counter the surging threat posed by an army of Sunni extremists marching toward Baghdad.

Former members of both the Obama and Bush administrations warned that unless the United States acted quickly and aggressively, the gains of an eight-year conflict in the region could be wiped away in an eyeblink. "This has gone beyond counterterrorism. This is a full-blown military assault. We better be thinking in terms of a much more holistic effort to stem the tide, or we're going to find the tide swamping us," said Peter Mansoor, the former top officer to Gen. David Petraeus when he served as the supreme commander of Allied forces in Iraq.

The meteoric advance of forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing first the key northern city of Mosul and then Tikrit, which sits a little more than 100 miles from the Iraqi capital, has pushed the crisis to the Obama administration's front burner. (Reports Thursday had Iraqi government forces pushing back in Tikrit while Kurdish forces seized the oil-producing city of Kirkuk.)

"I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq—or Syria for that matter," Obama said from the Oval Office on Thursday.

The administration, however, categorically ruled out sending ground forces into the conflict. Instead, the president said, there are some "short-term immediate things that will be done militarily—and our national security team is looking at all the options," which, he said, include sending equipment, providing financial aid, or sharing intelligence.

But a former Obama adviser to Iraq argued that those "are for the next crisis, not this one"—and that the White House is more likely considering more direct action.

"You have to think [air strikes] are back on the table again," said Douglas Ollivant, the former director on Iraq for the National Security Council during both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the Iraqi government had requested American air support to stall the ISIS advance, but so far those pleas had been denied by the administration. Ollivant said that stance was likely changing. "It's probably in our interests to intervene," he said. "We don't have an interest in a jihadist state being carved out or Iraq and Syria."

Nor can the White House wait, Ollivant said, for assurances from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki that he will form a more inclusive government that includes Sunni interests. "We're beyond this," he said. "This is much more about an invading army from Syria."

Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who aided Petreaus during the "surge" of 2007-08, also said Obama needed to act swiftly. "The White House has to engage. They can wish away this war all they want," he said. "But this is a crisis and it is one that affects U.S. national interests in the Middle East and our interests worldwide in terms of the stability of the world economy."

At a press briefing just a day earlier, the White House had again declared the war in Iraq "ended" as far as the United States was concerned, and critics have long contended that Obama's desire to define the conflict as a political success had blinded him to the mounting insurgency.

House Speaker John Boehner accused Obama Thursday of "taking a nap" as ISIS mushroomed into a danger to the Iraqi government. Regardless, it marks just the latest challenge for a president who only weeks ago in a major foreign policy address seemed to be stepping away from interventionism. And, it was only little over a year ago that Obama said he was considering "all options" in the Syrian civil war—the conflict that gave ISIS a foothold in the region—but the moment passed without significant American action.

The fresh threat to Baghdad had the administration defending its decision to pull all forces out of Iraq three years ago after a security agreement with the Iraqi government couldn't be reached. "The withdrawal in Iraq in 2011 was not a mistake," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday.

P.J. Crowley, a former State Department official, contended that once U.S. forces left this became "Iraq's battle, not ours."

"That is a decision ultimately Iraq made, not the United States," Crowley said. "Would we better off if there were 10,000 American troops in Iraq today? Yes. However, we were not going to put them there without Iraq being invested in their presence."

Still, some Democrats were worried Thursday about the damage an unstable Iraq—on top of the carnage in Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine—could do to Obama's increasingly embattled presidency. One prominent Democratic consultant warned that even if Iraq was viewed as Bush's war, this president will be hammered without some manner of robust U.S. military action.

"We have to do more than we want to, because there's no choice," the consultant said. "If Baghdad falls, the failure will be ours politically."

Tom DeFrank contributed to this article.

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