The U.S. signaled on Wednesday that it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces to help them deal with an insurgency rather than to meet what one U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for U.S. air strikes.
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An Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Iraq had previously made clear its interest in drone strikes or bombing by manned U.S. aircraft to help it beat back the militant onslaught.
Sunni rebels from an al-Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country, making further gains in their rapid military advance against the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.
The threat to the Baiji refinery came after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL group, seized the northern city of Mosul, advancing their aim of creating a Sunni Caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
Air strikes not on the table
The White House, however, suggested that air strikes were not at the top of its agenda as it considers what it may do to help the Iraqi government against an insurgency that has drawn strength from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
"While the national security team always looks at a range of options, the current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat posed by ISIL," White House national security council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in an emailed comment.
The Obama administration official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity declined to provide details on what the United States might do to help Iraq, saying only that it was "considering [a] range of requests."
The Wall Street Journal, quoting senior U.S. officials, first reported that Iraq had signaled it would let the United States strike al-Qaeda militant targets in Iraq with manned aircraft or drones.
Separately, the New York Times reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider air strikes against militant staging areas as the threat from Sunni insurgents mounted last month.
The White House declined to confirm either newspaper report.
"We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions but the government of Iraq has made clear that they welcome our support" against the militants, Meehan said in a separate statement.
"We have expedited shipments of military equipment since the beginning of the year, ramped up training of Iraqi Security Forces, and worked intensively to help Iraq implement a holistic approach to counter this terrorist threat," she added.
"Our assistance has been comprehensive, is continuing and will increase."
Al-Maliki's leadership questioned
The Obama administration offered only tepid support for Iraq's beleaguered prime minister Wednesday, and U.S. lawmakers openly questioned whether he should remain in power.
With no obvious replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — and no apparent intent on his part to step down —
"He's obviously not been a good prime minister," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al-Qaida efforts."
The panel's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted only lukewarm support for al-Maliki, both in Iraq and among U.S. officials. "I don't know whether or not he will actually be the prime minister again," Menendez said. "I guess by many accounts, he may very well ultimately put (together) the coalition necessary to do that."
The push of Islamic militants into Mosul and Baiji has raised new doubts about al-Maliki's ability to protect Iraq in areas that were mostly calm when U.S. troops withdrew from the country less than three years ago. Since then, violence has roared back to Iraq, returning to levels comparable to the darkest days of sectarian fighting nearly a decade ago when the country teetered on the brink of civil war.
There's more 'Maliki can do'
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it's expected that the U.S. will give Iraq new assistance to combat insurgents but declined to describe it. Beyond the missiles, tanks, fighter jets and ammunition that the U.S. has already either given or plans to send to Iraq, Baghdad has sought American surveillance drones to root out insurgents.
"The situation is certainly very grave on the ground," Psaki said Wednesday. She said the U.S. is encouraged by Baghdad's recent promise for a national unity effort but "there's more that Prime Minister Maliki can do.”
Travel warning for Canadians
The government of Canada is advising any Canadians in Mosul to leave the city immediately — if they can do so safely.
Foreign Affairs is also advising against any non-essential travel in the country.
There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the rampage, which sent an estimated 500,000 people fleeing the city and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Some simply crossed to the eastern bank of the Tigris River to avoid the worst of the fighting, while others made their way to the Ninevah countryside or sought refuge in the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Getting into that area has grown trickier, however, with migrants without family members already in the enclave needing to secure permission from Kurdish authorities, according to the IOM.