WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama came under pressure from US lawmakers on Wednesday to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as his failed leadership in the face of an insurgency threatening his country.
As Obama prepared to meet congressional leaders to discuss US options in the Iraq crisis, senior administration officials joined the chorus of criticism against Maliki, faulting him for failing to heal sectarian rifts that militants have exploited.
Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government had asked for US air power to help counter Sunni militants who have overrun the north of the country. The general did not say whether Washington would meet the Iraqi request.
The United States, which withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011, has said Baghdad must take steps toward sectarian reconciliation before Obama will decide on any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda splinter group.
Maliki has so far shown little willingness to create a more inclusive administration.
“The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” said US Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Republican Senator John McCain, speaking in the Senate, called for the use of American air power in Iraq, but also urged Obama to “make it make very clear to Maliki that his time is up.”
The Obama administration has not openly sought Maliki’s departure, but has shown signs of frustration with him.
“This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds, and the Shia,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the congressional hearing.
Obama invited Senate and House of Representatives leaders to the White House for a meeting on Wednesday afternoon. There was no immediate indication that he was preparing to present them with a plan of action, although he may give a better sense of the approach he is leaning toward as well as a possible timetable.
White House officials said Obama had not yet made a decision, though he has ruled out sending troops back into combat in Iraq.
Much attention has been focused on the possible use of air strikes, either by warplanes or unmanned drones, but US officials have made clear they are concerned about the risk of hitting the wrong targets and causing civilian casualties.
Some liberal Democratic lawmakers have said they would be uncomfortable with manned airstrikes, viewing them as a return of US forces to Iraq.
“Airstrikes or boots in combat on the ground would be regarded as ‘Oh, we’re back in Iraq,’” said US Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat.
“Providing some behind the scenes help is one thing. Going to war in Iraq is something else,” he told Reuters, after a classified briefing for some House members.
Other options include stepped-up training of Iraqi forces, possibly with US special forces, accelerated delivery of weapons and increased sharing of intelligence.
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at the US Capitol that he hoped to hear a “broader strategy” from Obama on Iraq.
“What I’m looking for is a strategy that will guarantee some success in keeping Iraq free, and propping up the democracy that we fought so hard to get,” he said.
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