The fate of the state of Iraq hangs in the balance, US President Barack Obama said at the White House on Thursday, announcing military preparations for "targeted and precise" kinetic action against ISIS, a terrorist militia conquering territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
Iraqi leaders "don't have a lot of time," Obama said, warning that the country might once again descend into civil war.
While Obama has not yet ordered military action, he positioned assets in the region for a strike, he said. Obama also announced that 300 military advisers would be deployed to Iraq to advise and train officials there.
"We now have significantly more intelligence resources," one senior administration official said Thursday, adding that the Pentagon has spent the last week— since ISIS forces took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city— identifying precise targets to offer to the president.
"The United States will take action if we believe it's in our national security interests," the official said. "There's certainly a set of options [against ISIS] available to the president."
In a significant shift, US officials said that ISIS targets presented to the president by his National Security Council were not restricted to Iraq.
"We don't restrict potential US action to specific geographic states," the official said, while noting that the president's focus is currently on ISIS targets in Iraqi territory.
ISIS is based in Syria, they acknowledged, and thus Obama considers Syrian targets legitimate should he determine ISIS a threat to the interests of the United States.
After meeting with his top national security staff in the White House situation room for over an hour, Obama told the press that the threat of ISIS could "potentially" reach the United States— and that the terrorist militia currently posed an immediate threat to US interests in the region.
Taking questions in the West Wing, Obama said that, while "old habits die hard," it was possible that Iran might play a constructive role in maintaining the stability of the Iraqi state— and that his administration had been in touch with Iranian officials concerning the crisis.
"Iran can play a constructive role if it's helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government as we're sending," Obama said, adding, "Iran has heard from us."
Another senior US official, speaking by phone from Baghdad, told White House reporters that the ability of ISIS to conquer territory across borders "once seemed preposterous," but that the US was now taking the intentions and operational skills of the organization seriously.
"They're very effective" at eroding the fabric of the Iraqi government, the official said, calling the events of last week a "psychological collapse" of the state.
ISIS seeks to form a strict Sunni Islamic caliphate that will erase borders drawn by the United Kingdom in the Arab world just a century ago. Syria's civil war has allowed the group, founded as Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, to fester in the country's east.
The organization is now considered the richest terrorist organization in the world, with modest estimates putting their wealth at $700 million in cash flow.
After a full US troop pullout from Iraq, intelligence "visibility" has been significantly eroded, officials acknowledge. The US seeks to enhance that visibility once again before ordering military action.
Officials said that 30,000 US troops remain in the Gulf region and that the Pentagon has increased that presence in recent days.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is to travel to the region to lobby Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take concrete political steps that might mitigate the crisis.
Obama met with his top national security advisers, including Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the heads of US intelligence agencies and his ambassador to the UN, Susan Power, before speaking to the press.
Meanwhile, Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country’s biggest refinery on Thursday Maliki waited for a US response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.
Kerry said Obama still had “all options” open to him, but US regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia echoed concern in Washington about the risk of US action serving only to inflame the sectarian war.
Asked whether Washington would accede to that appeal, Kerry told NBC only that “nothing is off the table.”
Some politicians have urged Obama to insist that Maliki goes as a condition for further US help.
The head of Iran’s presidential office, Mohammad Nahavandian, speaking to reporters in Oslo on Wednesday, said that if nuclear talks prove successful, it could open the way for talks with the US to find a solution to the Iraq crisis, AFP reported.
However, on the same day, Iranian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi ruled out any chance of cooperating with the US in Iraq.
“Cooperation between Iran and the US will never take place and is meaningless,” he said, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.
Firouzabadi also countered reports that Iranian forces were in Iraq, saying there was “no need” for them.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Iraq has asked for drone strikes and increased surveillance by US drones, which have been flying over Iraq. However, officials note, targets for air strikes could be hard to distinguish from civilians among whom ISIS’s men were operating.
Rob Caruso, a former special security officer for the United States Navy supporting strike operations, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday that the president made some prudent choices, “but they are not muscular enough.”
“Drone strikes won’t be able to strike in Iraq until they have actionable intelligence and the advisers that are being sent to Iraq will allow them to pinpoint their location and capture or kill their leaders,” said Caruso, a former official with the Department of Defense and Department of State.
However, he added, “drones and unmanned aircraft are useless in this scenario. It is contested airspace and Iran has a variety of electronic warfare capabilities that can cripple our drones, so it will be necessary to use manned naval aircraft from the Persian Gulf and other aircraft from neighboring countries like Turkey or Jordan.”
A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has widened under Maliki.
The Saudi source told Reuters: “No outside interference will be of any benefit,” adding that Washington, France and Britain all agreed with Riyadh that “dialog and a political solution is the way forward in Iraq.”
The United Arab Emirates announced on Wednesday that it was recalling its ambassador to Baghdad for consultations, saying it was worried that the Iraqi government’s “sectarian” policies could heighten political tensions and worsen security there.
In the meantime, the United States began flying F-18 attack aircraft from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of the insurgents. The carrier was ordered into the Gulf several days ago.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km. north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shi’ite-led government held off insurgents from ISIS and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies. A government spokesman said around noon that its forces were in “complete control.”
However, a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing. Two Iraqi helicopters tried to land in the refinery but were unable to because of insurgent gunfire, and most of the refinery remained under rebel control.
A day after the government publicly appealed for US air power, there were indications Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority.
Video aired by Al-Arabiya television showed smoke billowing from the Baiji plant and the black flag used by ISIS flying from a building. Workers who had been inside the complex, which spreads for miles close to the Tigris river, said Sunni fighters seemed to hold most of the compound in early morning and that security forces were concentrated around the refinery’s control room.
The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked rebel positions overnight, he added.
Baiji, 40 km. north of Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by an array of armed Sunni groups, spearheaded by ISIS. On Tuesday, staff shut down the plant, which makes much of the fuel Iraqis in the north need for both transport and generating electricity.
ISIS, which considers Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighboring, Shi’ite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki’s US-armed forces collapsed.
The group’s advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi’ite militias and other volunteers. The government announced on Thursday that those who joined up to fight in “hot areas” would be paid about $150 a week.
Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city which houses a major Shi’ite shrine.
Competing with Iran for regional influence – a rivalry that echoes 13 centuries of Sunni- Shi’ite strife – Saudi Arabia hit back angrily at an accusation this week by Maliki’s government that Riyadh was promoting sectarian “genocide” by supporting ISIS. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called that “ludicrous” and said Saudis were fighting ISIS, an al-Qaida splinter group.
From Iran, which has pledged to intervene if necessary in Iraq to protect Shi’ite holy places, a tweet from an account linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei noted that Western powers support the mostly Sunni revolt against Syria’s Iranian- backed leader. It called for Sunnis and Shi’ites to resist efforts by the terrorists and the West to divide Muslims.Reuters contributed to this report.