In the strongest sign yet of U.S. doubts about the Iraq government's ability to stabilize the strife-torn country, President Barack Obama questioned the future leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying that the country's political elite needed to rise above sectarian differences and find an "inclusive agenda."
"We’ve said it publicly that whether he is prime minister, or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that it has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interests through the political process," Obama said at a White House briefing Thursday.
He added that the "test was before" Maliki, and that "the future of Iraq hangs in the balance."
Obama's statement came amid reports that the White House is weighing whether to press the Iraqi prime minister to step down in a last-ditch effort to avert a full-scale civil war. Maliki, a Shia, has long been criticized for not governing more inclusively and for stoking sectarian tensions that provided fertile ground for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) insurgency, which has taken over large swathes of northern Iraq this week in a lightening offensive.
The country is now facing its worst crisis in years. Iraqi forces were assembled north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at the ISIL, whose drive toward the capital has prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.
Obama announced on Thursday that the U.S. would increase the number of military advisers in Iraq by up to 300 and boost intelligence and coordination assistance to Iraq’s security forces, while still holding out the possibility for "targeted and precise" air strikes in the country. He acknowledged mission creep was something the U.S. would have to “guard against,” but reiterated the U.S. was not about to get bogged down in another war in Iraq.
Prior to his statement, Obama met with his national security team, which includes Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, to discuss how strongly to press Maliki to undertake reforms and make his government more inclusive.
Top U.S. officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns may offer the best opportunity to stave off deadly sectarian fighting of the kind that engulfed Iraq less than a decade ago.
Obama also signaled an uptick in diplomatic efforts, with Secretary of State John Kerry being sent to the Middle East and Europe to build international consensus on Iraq.
But he fell short of publicly calling for Maliki to resign and instead pressured Iraqis to make their own political decisions.
"We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq," Obama told reporters. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
Iraqi officials told the New York Times on Thursday, however, that Robert Beecroft, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official on Iraq and Iran, had in recent days met with both Usama Nujaifi, the leader of the largest Sunni political faction, United For Reform, and with Ahmad Chalabi, one of the perennial Shia candidates for prime minister. A source said the possibility of forcing Maliki out was discussed.
Vice President Biden spoke with Maliki Wednesday and emphasized a need for him to govern in a manner inclusive of all the country’s religions and ethnicities. Biden also spoke to Iraq's Sunni parliamentary speaker and the president of Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region.
On Friday, Iraq's highest Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, echoed Obama's call for the newly elected parliament to form the country's next government as soon as possible. Sistani's statement, read out by a representative at Friday prayers in the Shia holy city of Karbala, urged the new government to "open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis."
Maliki had gone on a diplomatic offensive Wednesday, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation's disaffected Sunnis and Kurds. His conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the ISIL insurgents a "lesson," came as almost all of Iraq's main communities have been drawn into violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings in the years following the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country.
The U.S. withdrew the last American troops from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. The withdrawal came after Washington and Baghdad were unable to reach an agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence. Obama on Thursday reiterated that no U.S. combat troops would be deployed.
But faced with a growing Sunni insurgency, Iraq's government has asked the U.S. to launch air strikes to contain the ISIL fighters that seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country's military melted away.
Obama's decision-making on air strikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies.
Beyond air strikes, the White House announced plans to boost Iraq's intelligence about ISIL. Officials have said that additional U.S. forces that could be brought into Iraq to train local security forces could also assist in identifying possible targets for strikes.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement he supported Obama’s decision to deploy additional U.S. military personnel. “These special operators will assess the situation on the ground, help evaluate gaps in Iraqi security forces, and increase their capacity to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Hagel said.
A senior Maliki ally, speaking on condition of anonymity, welcomed Obama’s announcement of additional support in an interview with Reuters on Thursday. He said Iraqi forces had successfully blocked access for the insurgents into Baghdad, which meant there was no immediate need for U.S. strikes.
"The U.S. was prepared to bomb certain positions, but once the danger to Baghdad was removed, it bought time," said the politician, a leading member of Maliki's ruling coalition.
He said the Americans were establishing an intelligence liaison center to help improve the quality of Iraqi intelligence, which the politician described as lacking. "Once they are down there they will be able to do targeting," the politician said. "It will help the U.S. prepare and see how it should be involved."
There are still questions about the legality of U.S. drone strikes on Iraq without congressional approval, but Obama discussed his options Wednesday with congressional leaders, who told him they do not believe he needs authorization for certain steps he might take to quell the Qaeda-inspired insurgency.
Al Jazeera and wire services