Barack Obama says said he is examining options short of sending ground troops to help Iraq counter a Sunni extremist offensive, but warned the country must heal its own divisions.
“We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” Mr Obama said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has asked the United States to provide military assistance to counter a stunning advance by ISIL, a Sunni extremist movement.
But, in brief remarks to reporters at the White House, Obama warned the Baghdad government that it had brought disaster on itself by failing to heal the divides between Sunni and Shiite camps in the country.
“The United States will not involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” he said.
“We won’t allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while we’re there we’re keeping a lid on things and, after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability of the country.”
The US withdrew the last of its occupation forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after they overthrew the then-dictator Saddam Hussein, but Obama said he was studying options to increase ongoing support for the Iraqi military.
He added, however, that “any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences”.
Meanwhile, leading Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists marching on Baghdad, as thousands volunteered to bolster the the capital’s defences.
The United Nations reported a spate of summary executions by ISIL fighters in its campaign, which began with the capture of Iraq’s second city Mosul on Tuesday, before spreading south toward Baghdad.
“Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Sistani’s representative announced on his behalf during the main weekly prayers in the Shi’ite shrine city of Karbala.
“He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honour will be a martyr,” he added.
The elderly Mr Sistani, who rarely appears in public, is highly influential in the Shi’ite Muslim world and is adored by millions. [AFP]