WASHINGTON — Support for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq appeared to be growing in the Senate Thursday as al Qaida-aligned militants pressed toward the capital of Baghdad.
Speaking after an Oval Office meeting with visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, President Barack Obama says Iraq will need additional assistance from the U.S. to push back an Islamic insurgency.
The president did not specify what type of assistance he is willing to provide. But Obama says the White House has not ruled anything out. He says he is watching the situation in Iraq with concern and wants to ensure that jihadists don't get a foothold.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said air support might be the only way to repel a takeover of the country by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or ISIL, which has already seized Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The group also controls Fallujah, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. war.
Sen. John McCain on Thursday called the deteriorating condition in Iraq the gravest threat to the United States since the Cold War and said al-Qaida aligned forces are at their strongest point in history.
As he entered a closed-door emergency security briefing on the situation, McCain said he would consider supporting airstrikes.
Citing Iraqi and American officials, The New York Times reported late Wednesday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider airstrikes against extremist staging areas.
But Iraq's appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Barack Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
When asked by reporters if the Strategic Framework agreement between the two countries would allow the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren demurred, saying the question was "hypothetical."
"The current focus of our discussions with Iraq is to build — to help build their capacity so that they can successfully deal with the threat posed by [ISIL]," according to Warren.
Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee were more cautious.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the U.S. should proceed with a thorough review of all options before resorting to airstrikes.
"The message is we are going to carefully and thoughtfully look at the options we have, none of which are good options," Levin said.
McCain also called on Obama to fire his national security team and begin consultations with military and State Department leaders with deep experience in Iraq, including generals David Petraeus, James Mattis, Jack Kean, and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
Senate Republicans seized on the Iraq deterioration as the fault of the Obama administration, and criticized the president for recently announcing plans to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the year.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the Iraq crisis might have been avoided if a troop presence had been negotiated before the U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011.
Obama's announced timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan could create similar problems because it telegraphs military plans to the Taliban and is not based on conditions on the ground, she said.
"I would hope the president would take some of the lessons we are seeing in Iraq and not repeat them in Afghanistan" Ayotte said.
It comes as al-Qaida-inspired militants vowed Thursday to march on Baghdad after capturing the northern Iraqi cities on Mosul, the country's second largest city, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also took 60 Turkish nationals hostage, ratcheting up tensions and triggering an emergency meeting of NATO representatives.
The lightning advance of the militants has sparked deep concerns over the ability of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to repel an extremist takeover following the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011. About 4,400 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died during nearly a decade of war, which the United States launched in 2003 to remove Hussein's regime and reduce foreign threats following the 9/11 attacks.
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this report.