The Iraqi government has formally asked the United States to deploy airstrikes against a militant group that is occupying a growing section of northern and central Iraq and moving closer to Baghdad. The request comes as militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized Iraq’s biggest oil refinery on Wednesday. But it also comes as Barack Obama’s administration raised doubts about the value of kinetic strikes in a conflict plagued by deep sectarian divisions throughout the country.
"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Senate panel on Wednesday, June 18. But "it’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then striking it.… These forces are very intermingled."
Dempsey’s skepticism about airstrikes corresponds with what senior administration officials told the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Tuesday: That the United States lacks the information needed to hit ISIS targets in a way that would swing the momentum on the battlefield. Fears remain that U.S. military strikes could result in civilian casualties in Sunni-populated areas, a prospect that would further exacerbate the sectarian tensions with Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
"I happen to believe, and I think the president has said it, that a political solution is the only viable solution," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at Wednesday’s hearing before an appropriations subcommittee.
At the moment, Iraq’s government forces are struggling to thwart ISIS advances in Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, following the takeover of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, last week.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged Iraqis of all religious and ethnic sects to join forces in defeating the Sunni-led terrorist group.
"We all belong to one country and one religion," said the Shiite strongman. "Don’t listen to those talking about Sunnis and Shiites.… From Samara, we will start the battle to vanquish terrorism."
But Maliki’s rhetoric of inclusion is seen as just that in Washington, where frustration over his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is at an all-time high.
"One of the reasons I believe that Iraq is in this situation is that the current government never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring together a unity, power-sharing government with the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds," said Hagel. "And I think that’s probably generally accepted."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed. "I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," she said. "If you want a Shiite-Sunni war, that’s where we’re going, in my view, right now."
Publicly, the administration has ruled out the possibility of American combat troops on the ground. However, officials are reportedly considering sending U.S. special operations forces to Iraq to offer Baghdad intelligence and battlefield advice.