Congress briefed on Iraq; Obama says he won't seek OK on use of force
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday discussed the crisis in Iraq with senior lawmakers behind closed doors, telling them he would not seek Congress' formal approval should he decide that military force is necessary — a sore point for several members of both parties.
The president “indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps he might take,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Lawmakers gave no indication after the meeting that military action was imminent, even though the Iraqi president had requested U.S. airstrikes against Sunni terrorists who've swept through parts of the country since last week.
At a Senate hearing ostensibly on the Pentagon's 2015 budget, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said for the first time that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad had asked that Washington provide “air power” as it tries to take back territory seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and fellow Sunni insurgents. Iraqi officials have said their army, which offered little resistance as it retreated from several northern cities last week, needs help in the form of armed U.S. drones and fighter aircraft — something that Obama has declined to authorize.
Dempsey told a panel from the Senate Appropriations Committee that pinpointing targets in an air campaign would be difficult, especially because Sunni insurgents have melted into the local population.
“It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking,” he said.
The broader problem, he added, was that the government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had worsened Iraq's sectarian divisions. U.S. officials, who originally paved the way for Maliki to take power, have chastised him for alienating the country's Sunnis and Kurds.
In a televised address, Maliki struck an upbeat tone on the security situation as fighting raged for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery, saying volunteers who had answered a call from Iraq's top Shiite cleric would form the core of the new security forces.
Perhaps in an attempt to satisfy the United States, Maliki's speech lacked some of the religious rhetoric of previous addresses. But he attacked his political opponents for assisting countries in the region in a “sinister” plot to break up the country.
The loss of the refinery, which provides Iraq with more than a quarter of its domestically produced fuel, would mark another strategic blow to Maliki's government and could help fund the militants' rampage.
The clashes at the Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of Baghdad, occurred after an agreement collapsed between workers and tribesmen affiliated with ISIS, according to state oil officials and refinery workers.
The deal meant oil was still pumped to the facility last week even though militants controlling the surrounding area could hijack tankers and cut off pipelines, effectively controlling output, they said.
In Baghdad, military and security officials denied that the facility had fallen out of government hands. Gen. Qassim Atta, a military spokesman, said on Iraqiya television that the refinery was entirely under government control and that 40 insurgents had been killed as security forces repelled their advance on Wednesday. Atta's claims of government gains have conflicted with accounts from the ground in the past.
In other developments:
• Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament in London that ISIS was plotting terror attacks on British soil.
• India confirmed that 40 of its citizens had been kidnapped in the violence-hit Iraqi city of Mosul.
• Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal warned that Iraq was risking civil war.