President Obama faced more pressure to intervene militarily in Iraq Friday but his choices became more complicated with reports of Iran stepping in to help its besieged neighbor as Baghdad braced for an attack from insurgents.
As the country careened into full-blown sectarian violence, Shiite Iran sent Revolutionary Guard forces across the border to help bolster the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite, and fight the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
The development set off alarm bells for those who had warned that Iran would rush to fill the security vacuum created after the U.S. pulled all of its troops out of the country at the end of 2011.
Obama on Thursday said he was not ruling out any potential U.S. response to the sharply escalating violence, including air strikes, as Republicans stepped up their attacks on his foreign policy
An angry Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was so fed up with the developments of the past two weeks that Obama should demand the immediate resignation of his entire White House national security team.
“The first thing is get rid of this national security team, which has been a total failure,” he told reporters Thursday afternoon ahead of a classified Senate Armed Services briefing on the security situation in Iraq.
Later in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain called on Obama not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan and reverse his decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops there by the end of his term. They also said he needs to explain what actions he will take to address the growing threat terrorism threat now emanating from Syria and Iraq.
“The areas spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq are now the largest al Qaeda safe haven in history,” they said. “The lesson of 9/11 is that we cannot concede massive ungoverned spaces to the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations.”
Earlier Thursday Kurdish forces wrested control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, as the ISIS militants threatened to attack Baghdad and destroy historically historic important Shiite mosques in the South after taking Mosul and Tikrit earlier in the week.
Along with causing 500,000 residents to flee Mosul earlier this week, the al Qaeda-aligned ISIS also managed to rob the city's central bank of more than $400 million, making the group one of the richest terrorist organizations in the world.
Obama has so far resisted calls from Maliki to use drone and other airstrikes to take out key al Qaeda and ISIS forces, but he has ordered his national security team to present him with all options available.
Some members of his national security team have pushed Obama to sign off on a package of increased military assistance, including advanced training for Iraqi special forces, and Apache attack helicopters, Hellfire missiles and other small arms.
With Iran stepping in to to assist al-Maliki, some critics argue airstrikes right now would actually make the situation worse.
Ken Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, viewed even the possibility of airstrikes as a “half-step” that could actually backfire without political reform.
“It's going to take big, dramatic actions to have any chance of pulling Iraq out of this spiral,” he said.
In order for Iraq to receive any U.S. military aid, Obama should demand that Maliki agree to bring the Sunnis back into the government, limit his own powers, and revamp the Iraqi military.
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a retired Army general who commanded U.S. training of Iraqi troops in 2004 and 2004 and now serves as a senior adviser for the National Security Network, said the more drone or other types of airstrikes killing is wrongheaded.
“I am convinced that the specter of the United States killing more Arab with airstrikes is a bad optic,” he said.
Instead, he said, the U.S. should send in military advisory teams to help with intelligence, communications and reconnaissance that appears to be sorely lacking with ISIS controlling a large swath of the country right now.
In order to send any U.S. troops into Iraq, al-Maliki would need to quickly agree to a Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S., something he refused to do before Obama pulled all the troops out of the country at the end of 2011.
With Iraq's government losing control of the country, the U.S. now has the leverage it needs to obtain the agreement and force al-Maliki to stop disenfranchising the Sunni population.
If Obama does nothing, Pollack says he runs the risk of sending oil prices skyrocketing, which is often the precursor to serious economic downturns, and leaving a spawning ground for terrorism unattended.
“Civil wars are breeding grounds for terrorism,” he said. “The worst terrorist groups – al Qaeda, al-Nusra Front – you name it – were all born of civil wars.”