WASHINGTON — The Obama administration signaled its reluctance Wednesday to launch airstrikes in Iraq or intervene militarily in support of its government, telling Congress that a bombing campaign would be fraught with complications and that Iraq's political divisions needed to be addressed first.
Senior lawmakers who met with President Barack Obama behind closed doors gave no indication afterward that military action was imminent.
They said Obama told them he was still reviewing his options but that he was primarily considering ways to bolster Iraq's beleaguered security forces.
At the same time, some lawmakers said, Obama told them he would not seek Congress' formal approval should he decide that military force is necessary — a sore point for several members of both parties. The president "indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps he might take," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The White House said Obama reviewed the administration's efforts "to strengthen the capacity of Iraq's security forces" in their fight against Sunni Muslim insurgents who have seized several key cities and overwhelmed the Iraqi army.
Fresh threats to Iraq's stability emerged Wednesday. A fire erupted at a major oil refinery about 125 miles north of Baghdad after it came under attack from insurgents. And Iran's president vowed that his country would intervene in the conflict if Sunni Muslim insurgents made good on their threat to desecrate Iraqi holy sites that draw thousands of Iranian Shiite pilgrims each year.
Earlier Wednesday, the Pentagon's top leaders warned of the political and military risks of launching another bombing campaign in Iraq, saying that a rush to action could backfire if targets and goals were unclear.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has requested that Washington provide "air power" as it tries to take back territory seized in recent weeks by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other Sunni insurgents. Iraqi officials have said their army, which offered little resistance as it retreated from several northern cities last week, needs help in the form of armed U.S. drones and fighter aircraft — something that Obama has so far declined to authorize.
Dempsey told a panel from the Senate Appropriations Committee that pinpointing targets in an air campaign would be difficult, especially because Sunni insurgents have melted into the local population.
"It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking," he said.
The broader problem, he added, was that the government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had worsened Iraq's sectarian divisions. U.S. officials, who originally paved the way for Maliki to take power, have since chastised him for alienating the country's Sunnis and Kurds.
Some Republican lawmakers pushed for more decisive U.S. action, warning of a risk of Iraq becoming a failed state dominated by al-Qaida sympathizers.
"I want the American people to understand: There's a lot at stake for us . . . if Iraq falls and Iran dominates the south and this group, ISIS, owns the Sunni territory all the way from Aleppo to Baghdad," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "That would create economic chaos in the region, which would affect us here at home."
In response, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Obama had not made a decision on airstrikes but urged caution.
"There has to be a reason for those," Hagel said. "There has to be an objective. Where do you go with those? What does it do to move the effort down the road for a political solution?"
Hagel and Dempsey said U.S. intelligence analysts had forecast a growing threat from ISIS in Iraq but acknowledged that they were taken aback by how rapidly and easily the insurgents have been able to sweep aside Iraqi forces. Many of the Iraqi troops had been trained by the U.S. military — which invested $25 billion to rebuild the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Dempsey said the Pentagon has deployed "a great deal" of surveillance aircraft — both drones and conventional planes — over Iraq "to try to gain clarity on what exactly is occurring."
Another influential military figure, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, also urged caution Wednesday. Petraeus, who oversaw the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and later became director of the CIA, said the United States should not rush to support Maliki militarily unless his government can gain the confidence of Sunnis and other religious and ethnic groups.