Since it finally pulled the last U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, the Obama administration has been extremely reluctant to get involved in the ongoing conflicts in the region. However, the New York Times reports that as the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) grew in recent weeks, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the U.S. to carry out airstrikes against the Sunni militants. The Obama administration refused, but it’s facing new pressure now that ISIS has taken Tikrit and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in just the past two days. Many fear that Iraq’s military may not be able to fend off the insurgents, who are quickly advancing toward Baghdad.
The Al Qaeda–inspired group seized Fallujah in January, and has taken at least partial control of well over a dozen cities in northern Syria and Iraq. Its ultimate goal is create an Islamic state that includes the Sunni-dominated parts of the two countries. ISIS militants faced little opposition as they advanced this week, and many Iraqi soldiers and police officers reportedly abandoned their posts before the rebels were even in sight. Iraqi security forces were trained and armed by the U.S., prompting accusations from both sides about which country deserves the blame for the Iraqi forces’ anemic response.
The U.S. hasn’t totally abandoned Iraq’s security forces since withdrawing most troops three years ago. According to the Times, it’s provided a $14 billion military aid package, which includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, and M-16 rifles. American Special Operations commandos are also training Iraqi forces in counterterrorism in Jordan.
Iraqi government officials say they still need more assistance. They’ve asked the U.S. to speed up the delivery of certain equipment, and requested more direct intervention. Last month Prime Minister Maliki reportedly asked top American officials to give his country the ability to conduct drone attacks against ISIS, and said if that wasn’t possible, he would allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against the militants. He repeated his request in writing, and in a phone call with Vice President Joe Biden.
While the Obama administration regularly conducts drone strikes against terrorists believed to be targeting the U.S.(there have been two suspected American drone strikes in Pakistan this week), it doesn’t appear that option is currently on the table in Iraq. Despite fears that the Sunni militants could create a new haven for those who want to conduct terror attacks in other parts of the world, Bernadette Meehan, a White House National Security Council spokeswoman, said their focus now “is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat posed by [ISIS].”