President Barack Obama told top lawmakers that he won't need additional congressional approval for the options he's considering in response to the sectarian violence in Iraq.
"The president basically just briefed us on the situation in Iraq and indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take and indicated he would keep us posted," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said after leaving the White House this afternoon.
Obama hosted the classified briefing for congressional leaders with no sign he's ready to order military action to help the Shiite-dominated government fight off Sunni militants threatening the capital Baghdad. While Obama is under pressure from some Republicans to begin air strikes, so far he's resisted, saying only that he's open to all options except inserting ground troops.
McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to say what potential responses the president discussed in Wednesday's meeting.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the insurgency could spread into neighboring countries. He has requested U.S. air power to stop the violence that is dividing the country on sectarian lines, less than three years after the the last U.S. troops departed. American diplomats are trying to forge a political compromise to avert a full scale, Syria-like civil war.
House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi joined McConnell and Reid at the meeting. "The president's going to keep us as informed as he can as the process moves forward," Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said.
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate subcommittee earlier today that the military is "developing a full range of options" for confronting the radicals, who call themselves ISIS.
Dempsey signaled that air strikes aren’t imminent, and would require better intelligence on ground targets.
"These forces are very much intermingled," Dempsey said. "It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking."
Dempsey cited the case of an Iraqi army base in Mosul that was taken over by the Sunni militants, who then were ousted by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
"So in the course of about 36 hours, we had Iraqi army units, we had [ISIS] and then we had the Peshmerga in that same facility," Dempsey said. "And until we can actually clarify this intelligence picture, the options will continue to be built and developed and refined and the intelligence picture made more accurate and then the president can make a decision."
The U.S. has manned and unmanned aircraft in the region. The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, now in the Persian Gulf, has 65 aircraft on board, including 44 F/A-18 fighter-bombers and five EA-6B Prowler electronic jamming aircraft, according to Navy figures. U.S. drones already are being used over Iraq for reconnaissance missions, and a Navy official confirmed that F/A-18s flown from the carrier also are conducting surveillance.
To protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other diplomatic installation, Obama notified Congress that he's sending as many as 275 military personnel into Iraq.
Some lawmakers in Congress have been agitating for the U.S. to do more, short of calling for a deployment of troops.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, criticized Obama's deliberative pace.
"Having failed to act months ago with drone strikes — as repeatedly requested by the Iraqi government — it is clear that the Obama administration is struggling to respond to this urgent situation," Royce said in a statement emailed after he received a classified briefing on Iraq from the State Department.
Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, was at the Capitol Wednesday, repeating the Iraqi government's plea for air strikes.
Royce said he and Faily "shared our mutual concern that the White House has denied drone strike requests as ISIS has advanced in broad daylight."
Maliki, in television speech today, warned that the conflict threatens to spread through the region.
"They will flee to you and your countries will also be inflamed with sectarian wars," Maliki warned his neighbors, without naming nations he considered at risk.
His Shiite Muslim-led government Tuesday accused Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest Sunni power, of providing "moral and material support" for ISIS, the group that began its assault by sweeping last week into Mosul in northern Iraq.
Iraq's oil production, the second-largest among OPEC nations, could also be at risk. The central government has been battling insurgents for control of a major refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad.
So far, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. hasn’t seen any "major disruptions" in oil supplies from Iraq. Concern about the fighting has help push Brent crude, which is used to price more than half of the world's oil, above $114 a barrel.
Carney called the meeting and classified briefing "part of the process of consultation" and a chance for Obama to hear from lawmakers on where they stand.
He repeated past statements by Obama that the U.S. can't solve the sectarian strife engulfing Iraq, that the country's leaders must reach some reconciliation.
"Ultimately, Iraq has to take responsibility for its own security," Carney said.
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