The U.S. aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush and her more than 50 attack aircraft were available to conduct airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq if President Obama gives the order, Pentagon officials said Friday.
The Bush and her accompanying battle group of ships "were in the region and ready for any tasking," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. Kirby would not confirm several reports that the Bush had already moved into the Persian Gulf.
The 1092-foot, nuclear-powered carrier, named for former President George H.W. Bush, deployed from her homeport in Norfolk, Va., in February on a regular rotation to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region.
The Bush would be among several military options that were being drawn up by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his planning staff for President Obama's consideration to stop the swift advance of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq who have taken over major cities west and north of Baghdad.
"It's our job to provide the Commander-In-Chief with options. We're doing that," Kirby said. In addition, the U.S. has also stepped up intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations with drones over Iraq at the request of the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Kirby said the military options being prepared for Obama were "designed to break the momentum of ISIS forces" which reportedly have come within 50 miles of Baghdad against little resistance from the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
Earlier, President Obama said military action of some type by the U.S. was likely in the coming days but he ruled out boots on the ground.
Following morning meetings at the White House with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama said U.S. action was necessary to stop the ISIS that "could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well."
"We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces, and I'll be reviewing those options in the days ahead," Obama said before leaving for a visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North Dakota.
Obama used the term "ISIL," or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, to refer to the ISIS jihadists who have been vastly outnumbered by the Iraqi army and yet have taken over Mosul, a town of two million, by attacking in pickup trucks with small arms.
"Look, the United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces, and we devoted a lot of training to Iraqi security forces," Obama said. "The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight, and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists, but not terrorists who are overwhelming in numbers, indicates that there's a problem with morale," Obama said.
Obama repeated his charged that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government has failed to heal rifts with the Sunni communities in western Iraq who have given support to ISIS.
"Unfortunately, Iraq's leaders have been unable to overcome too often the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there, and that's created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government as well as their security forces," Obama said.
At the Pentagon, Kirby said there were no immediate plans to withdraw the approximately 9,000 U.S. defense and civilian personnel in Iraq beyond several hundred contractors who were working on a project in Balad north of Baghdad. Kirby said the employer of the contractors was making arrangements for them to leave the country.
Kirby and other officials said they could not confirm ISIS claims on Twitter that as many as 1,700 captured Shia Iraqi soldiers have been executed. However, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed "extreme alarm" at the claim and said he had seen verified reports of "summary executions and extra-judicial killings."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com