WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday said U.S. airstrikes could be used to push back al-Qaida-aligned militants threatening the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee received a confidential briefing from Department of Defense Iraq and Middle East experts. After the briefing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the situation was “chilling” and that the country was collapsing to Sunni Islamic fundamentalists bent on creating a caliphate in the Middle East.
Shock over the lightning advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or ISIL, spread through Washington Thursday morning, and by midday, President Barack Obama announced that his national security team was “looking at all the options” for helping the government in Baghdad.
The ISIL was near a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra and heading south toward the capital after seizing Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. The group also controls Fallujah, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. war.
“There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American air power,” Graham said.
Speaking outside the closed-door emergency briefing, Sen. John McCain called an ISIL victory in Iraq the gravest threat to the United States since the Cold War, and said he would consider supporting airstrikes to repel the forces as one option.
“The options that we have become fewer and fewer as the startling success of the ISIL continues, so we have to act rather rapidly,” McCain said.
McCain called on Obama to fire his national security team and restaff it with former officials who took part in the Iraq War, including generals David Petraeus, James Mattis, Jack Kean, and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
“I favor putting together a team quickly and exploring all the options,” he said.
The New York Times reported, citing unnamed Iraqi and American sources, that Iraq President Nouri al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration this week to consider deploying military air power against extremist staging areas.
But Iraq’s appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
Democrats on the Armed Services Committee called for caution Thursday on any commitment of U.S. force.
Sen. Carl Levin, R-Mich., chairman of the committee, said he was carefully considering what options are available and that action may depend on the Iraq government’s commitment to securing the country.
“It’s unclear how airstrikes on our part can succeed unless the Iraqi army is willing to fight, and that’s uncertain given the fact that several Iraqi army divisions have melted away,” Levin said in a released statement.
The lack of reconciliation between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Sunni groups in the country is a key problem that must be solved if U.S. military intervention is to be successful, he said.
“We got into Iraq without adequate consideration for the consequences,” Levin said. “What is required now is thoughtful consideration of our options, none of which, typically for the Middle East, is obvious or easy.”
About 4,500 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died during nearly a decade of war, which the U.S. launched in 2003 to remove Hussein’s regime and reduce foreign threats following the 9/11 attacks.