Republicans accused Barack Obama of pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq and "taking a nap" as fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) advanced towards Baghdad.
Amid mounting pressure for a robust response, the White House is understood to be examining its options, including air support for the Iraqi government, as Obama faced calls in Washington to sack his entire national security team and turn to former CIA director, David Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in Iraq, for advice.
Senators briefed by the Pentagon on the deteriorating security situation said it "scared the hell" out of them. "The briefing was chilling. Iraq is falling apart," said Senator Lindsey Graham.
He and fellow Republican hawk John McCain have been leading calls in Washington for a stronger response and have criticised Obama for not leaving a residual force in Iraq to prevent such a crisis."We are facing a disaster here, not only in Iraq but Syria. Extremist groups now control more territory than at any time in history," said McCain. "Our failure to leave forces behind in Iraq is the reason that senator Graham and I predicted that this might happen and unfortunately our worst fears are being realised.
"This contradicts everything the president said in the 2012 campaign that he was ending wars. This is one of the gravest threats to our nation's national security since the end of the cold war."
Asked by the Guardian if U.S. air intervention would make any difference, McCain added: "There are many options, but the options become fewer and fewer as the startling success of the Isis continues. We need to act rather rapidly, but that has to be comprehensive strategy.
"The president should get rid of his entire national security team, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and bring in the team in who won the conflict in Iraq to turn this around, but it's going to be extremely difficult to do so."
Graham said a jihadist takeover in Iraq and Syria would create a "hell on earth" and air support was now the best available option . "I think American airpower is the only hope to change the battlefield equation in Iraq. The Iraqi army is in shambles, and without some kind of intervention, Baghdad is definitely in jeopardy . . . 10,000 or 15,000 strategically placed US soldiers would have held this together."
House Speaker John Boehner, the most senior Republican in Congress, said the White House had seen the pressure in Iraq building for over a year but did little to help authorities counter insurgents.
"Now they've taken control of Mosul, they're 100 miles from Baghdad," Boehner told reporters. "And what's the president doing? Taking a nap."
Support for Obama came from the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who said deadline for U.S. troops to leave Iraq "was set by the prior administration".
She also pointed to the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to approve a status of forces agreement with Washington under which US troops could remain in country.
Obama said he was watching the situation and his team was working to identify the most effective assistance. He said that while short-term military solutions were required, Iraq also needed to make longer-term political changes.
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