Iraqi tribesmen hold up their weapons as they show their readiness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP)
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WASHINGTON — As US President Obama prepared to meet with his national security team Monday evening to examine potential responses to the continuing violence in Iraq, there remained no consensus in Washington about how to react to the stunning events that had taken place in Iraq over the past week.
But an influential group of House and Senate Republicans are calling for US military action sooner rather than later to stem the tide of Sunni extremism in parts of Iraq.
With at least two Iraqi Army divisions having simply melted away in the face of several thousand members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a collection of local Iraqi Sunni tribe members who took the cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar, there is increasing talk of Washington and Tehran working together to assist the government in Baghdad.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday blasted the idea of working with Iran, releasing a statement calling it “the height of folly.”
“The reality is, US and Iranian interests and goals do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation dramatically worse,” McCain said. Having the Iraqi Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki work with his Shia allies in Tehran to beat back a Sunni uprising would only inflame sectarian tensions and “drive more Sunnis into ISIS’ ranks, empower the most radical Shia militants, deepen the Iraqi government’s dependence on Iran, alienate US allies and partners in the region, and set back the prospects of national reconciliation.”
Instead, McCain called for ramping up US military assistance to Iraq while also increasing “support to moderate opposition forces in Syria that are fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime.”
Administration officials told the Associated Press on Monday that one of the options the president is considering is sending up to 100 Special Operations forces to Iraq to assist the local security forces.
The reports of possibly partnering with Iran began early Monday morning when US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together — the integrity of the country — and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart.”
But later in the morning, Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters there are “no plans to consult Iran on military actions inside Iraq.” Nor are there any plans to “coordinate military activities.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tweeted later in the day that the United States is “open to political conversation with Iran re threat from ISIL, not military cooperation.”
There are American and Iranian diplomatic teams meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week for the latest round of talks concerning Iran’s nuclear program, and a senior administration official said on Monday that there may be discussion of Iraq “on the margins of our discussions.”
In an interview on Fox News on Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called for direct and continuing American military action against the extremist elements in Iraq, saying that Obama can’t “just fire missiles and come home.”
He criticized the administration for being too slow to act in both Syria and Iraq, and echoed the calls heard in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, saying, “I guarantee you that this is a problem that we will have to face. We are either going to face it in New York City or we’re going to face it here.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, also criticized American policy on Monday, insisting the United States months ago could have attacked the Sunni militants now rolling through western Iraq.
“I think we’ve been too reticent here, and we’ve waited too long because they’ve taken some major positions in the interim.” Royce added, “I just think we’ve lost an opportunity. About four months ago, this began to unfold. Right then, we had a target, we had the encampment, we should have hit it.”
Speaking on MSNBC’s NewsNation on Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., urged caution, insisting that whatever the president decides to do, he must consult Congress first.
“I urge the president to come to the Congress with specific proposals and recommendations,” he said, warning that he would refuse to consider any military action until the Maliki government brought together the leadership of the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations for power sharing talks.
“Before considering any military options, there has to be a national unity government in Iraq that reconciles the sectarian factions,” he said.