By Justin Sink - 06/12/14 01:23 PM EDT
President Obama on Thursday said he won’t "rule out anything" in responding to the "emergency situation" in Iraq and vowed that rebel militants cannot be allowed to gain permanent footholds in the country.
“This is an area that we’ve been watching with a lot of concern, not just over the last couple of days but over the last several months," Obama said.
“I don’t rule out anything 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 continued.
"But this should be also a wake-up call from the Iraqi government that there has to be a political component to this," Obama said.
Obama's vow to not "rule out anything" was in response to a question about the use of drones or manned airpower, and an administration official clarified that the White House was not considering boots on the ground.
“We are not contemplating ground troops, I want to be clear about that,” press secretary Jay Carney said. “The president was answering a question specifically about air strikes.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an offshoot of al Qaeda, has captured major cities in Iraq's north, including Mosul, the nation's second-largest city, and Tikrit, the home of former leader Saddam Hussein. Rebel forces have also seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the cities while rebels freed prisoners and seized government buildings.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed to the Obama administration to authorize airstrikes against the Sunni militants, according to multiple reports, but so far the administration has resisted doing so.
Earlier Thursday, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said that while the administration "always looks at a range of options, the current focus" of discussions with the Iraqis was helping to "build the capacity" of the government there to confront the ISIS. So far, the U.S. has provided $15 billion in weapons, equipment and training services to the Iraqi government, and White House officials say another tranche should arrive soon.
“That includes, in some cases, military equipment, it includes intelligence assistance, it includes a whole host of issues," Obama said. "But what we’ve seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”
Secretary of State John Kerry hinted Thursday that a decision on U.S. action could be coming soon.
"I know the president of the United States is prepared to make key decisions in short order," Kerry said. "And as he made clear earlier, options are on the table right now, and at the appropriate time I’m sure you’ll hear from the president."
Republican lawmakers on Thursday pressed the president to authorize airstrikes against the rebel militants.
“There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American airpower,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said after a classified Senate Armed Services Committee briefing. “If American airpower is not interjected into the equation, I don’t see how you stop these people.”
Other Republicans blasted the White House, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling for the resignation of the president's national security team.
“The first thing is get rid of this national security team, which has been a total failure,” McCain told reporters.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) blamed the rebel gains on the Obama administration agreeing to fully withdraw U.S. troops from the country.
"We're seeing the unraveling of Iraq," she said.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused Obama of "taking a nap" on the worsening conditions.
"It’s not like we haven’t seen this problem coming for over a year and it’s not like we haven’t seen, over the last five or six months, these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq," Boehner said.
Obama also used the chaos in Iraq to call on Congress to move on a $5 billion counterterrorism fund he proposed during his foreign policy address at West Point late last month. Obama said the program would " extend our reach without sending U.S. troops to play Whac-A-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country."
"We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time," Obama said. "But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security."
— This report was last updated at 4:16 p.m.