President Barack Obama promised Thursday to send more military aid to Iraq to help beat back a fast-moving insurgency as the U.S. evacuated a major air base in the nation’s north where it had been training Iraqi security forces.
Obama did not say what kind of new assistance would be given to Baghdad. But two U.S. officials who are familiar with ongoing negotiations said the White House is considering air strikes and increased surveillance, requested this week by the Iraqi defense minister, as the insurgency nears Baghdad.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The Iraqi government has been asking for more than a year for surveillance and armed drones to combat a Sunni insurgency that has gained strength from battlefield successes in neighboring Syria.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq is going to need more help,” Obama said. “It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”
He added: “We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq, or Syria for that matter.”
The president commented to reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Obama said he had not ruled out any options. But press secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. was not considering military “boots on the ground,” and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was not contemplating sending troops back to Iraq after leaving in 2011 at the end of an eight-year war.
Several thousand Americans remain in Iraq, mostly contractors who work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on programs to train Iraqi forces on American military equipment like fighter jets and tanks. One of the largest training missions was based at an air base in the city of Balad, about an hour northwest of Baghdad, where three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated on Thursday. They included 12 U.S. government officials and military personnel who have been training Iraqi forces to use fighter jets and surveillance drones.
The evacuation means that the program at Balad has been suspended indefinitely. Other U.S. contractors are at a tank training ground in the city of Taji, just north of the capital, that is still in operation for now.
In addition to the possible military assistance, Psaki said the U.S. is sending about $12 million in humanitarian aid to help nearly a million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by recent fighting in the nation’s north and west.
Iraq has been beset by resurgent violence since the last American troops withdrew after more than eight years of war. The violence escalated this week with an al-Qaida-inspired group capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities and talking of a march on Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pleaded with the Obama administration for more than a year for additional help to combat the insurgency, which has been fueled by the unrelenting civil war in neighboring Syria. Northern Iraq has become a way station for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are seeding the Syrian war’s violence in Iraq and beyond.
At the Capitol on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said Obama’s policies in Iraq were jeopardizing the progress the United States made in years of fighting. He noted that terrorists have been capturing territory, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, the home of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
“They’re 100 miles from Baghdad,” Boehner said. “And what’s the president doing? Taking a nap.”
The president said he was watching the situation in with concern and his team was working around the clock to identify the most effective assistance. He said that while short-term military solutions were required to tamp down the growing insurgency, Iraq also needed to make longer-term political changes.
If Obama orders US military strikes or involves American forces, he would face opposition in the House. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked, “Where are they going to get the funds?”
“To just go in and burn up more resources on a place that seems bent on destruction,” McKeon told reporters. “We had an opportunity there. They had an opportunity there. We blew it. They blew it. I don’t think we’re ready to go in another one.”