WASHINGTON — The White House, confronted by an unexpected crisis on a battlefield it thought it had left behind, scrambled Thursday to reassure Iraq that it would help its beleaguered army fend off militants who have overrun much of the country and now threaten Baghdad.
President Barack Obama was actively considering U.S. airstrikes against the militant groups, the New York Times reported, citing a senior official. Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to express U.S. support. And Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers about what Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., later described as a "grave situation."
In his only public comments on Iraq, Obama said his national security staff was meeting around the clock, but the frenzy of activity has yet to produce a tangible U.S. response — attesting to how swiftly this crisis has erupted.
The chaotic situation in Iraq showed no sign of letup Thursday as emboldened Sunni militants who seized two important Iraqi cities this week moved close to Baghdad while Kurdish forces poured into the strategic northern city of Kirkuk after it was evacuated by Iraqi government forces.
Airstrikes were only one of several options being weighed by the president, according to the senior official, who cautioned that Obama had made no decision on military action. The airstrikes, the official said, could be delivered either by unmanned drones or warplanes.
"I don't rule out anything," Obama said, speaking in the Oval Office after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, "because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter." He said he was watching the fast-moving events with "a lot of concern."
For Obama, ordering airstrikes would be a symbolically momentous step, returning the United States to a combat role in Iraq 21/2 years after he pulled out the last U.S. soldier, ending the nation's involvement in a war that left more than 4,400 Americans dead.
The possibility of coming to Iraq's rescue raises a host of thorny questions for Obama, who has steadfastly resisted being drawn into sectarian strife in Iraq or its neighbor, Syria. Republican lawmakers accused him of being caught flat-footed by the crisis and of hastening this outcome by not leaving an adequate U.S. force behind after 2011.
Reports that Iran has sent its paramilitary Quds force to help the struggling Iraqi army battle the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, raised the awkward possibility that the United States could find itself allied with Iran in shoring up an unpopular Shiite government in Baghdad. The White House said it was aware of the reports.
Obama insisted he had been monitoring the threat from Sunni militant groups for several months. The United States, he said, had supplied Iraq with military equipment and intelligence.
Until now, though, the White House has rebuffed several requests from Maliki for U.S. airstrikes against the staging areas of the militant groups, north and west of Baghdad, where extremists have flowed across the border from Syria.
In the past two days, Obama acknowledged, it was clear that the United States needed to go further. "Iraq's going to need more help," he said. "It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community."
"In our consultations with the Iraqis," he said, "there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily. But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government."
The president said the crisis confirmed his decision, articulated in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy, to reorient U.S. counterterrorism strategy from fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a more diffuse set of terrorist groups, some linked with al-Qaida, that stretch from the Middle East to North Africa.
On Capitol Hill, however, the images of Baghdad under threat from Islamic militants fanned a political firestorm. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned that the progress in Iraq was "clearly in jeopardy," and said Obama had been caught "taking a nap."
Democrats said the strife was the result of former President George W. Bush's misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"One act of violence provokes another act of violence," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. "And here we are."
Senators on the Armed Services Committee emerging from a two-hour, classified briefing on Iraq appeared stunned by what they heard from a senior Pentagon official, two senior Defense Intelligence Agency analysts and the three-star general in charge of security cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"Needless to say, it's a grave situation," Nelson said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who also wants the administration to consider airstrikes, said in a speech on the Senate floor: "We must never forget the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001.''
A State Department spokeswoman said U.S. contractors working in Baghdad on foreign military sales had been evacuated by their companies. But diplomats and staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq had not been moved, according to the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki.
Republicans and some Democrats sharply criticized the Obama administration for not having a credible response to help the Iraqi government repel the militants.
"There is no strategy," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview. "The president said he would not rule out anything. Is that a strategy? Is that a way to counter ISIS?" he said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., demanded that the administration provide Congress with both short-term and longer-term options.
Most lawmakers expressed caution in committing to U.S. airstrikes. But some said it might be the only way to give the Iraqi security services time to reorganize and blunt the militants' offensive.
"It might be the only way we can give some support so they can regroup, so the Iraqi Army can get itself together," said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.