The Obama administration is facing its worst-case scenario in Iraq, which seems on the verge of crumbling as Islamic militants march on Baghdad.
Just more than three years after U.S. soldiers left the country, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over hundreds of square miles ranging from Syria’s coast to the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit.
“If these people succeed in multiple countries, that is going to represent some kind of permanent terrorist threat to the West, to our interests around the world and to ourselves," he said on MSNBC.
The sudden developments have left the White House with few good options and opened President Obama to severe criticism from Republican critics in an election year.
They argue the failure to reach a security agreement that would have left some troops in Iraq has hastened the government’s downfall.
What’s more, the group is now taking control of U.S. arms and equipment that were left behind when troops left after nearly a decade in Iraq.
Militants posted pictures on Twitter that showed they had acquired U.S. Humvees and armored vehicles.
A Defense Department official said claims the group had also captured a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter were wrong but acknowledged that the vehicles might have fallen into the group’s hands.
U.S. officials are worried that more weapons could fall into ISIS’s hands if the militants reach Baghdad. The U.S. has already sold the Iraqi military armed helicopters, drones, Hellfire missiles and a number of small arms.
One reason the Obama administration resisted giving arms to rebel groups in Syria despite pressure from Congress is the fear the weapons would end up with al Qaeda-affiliates. If ISIS reaches Baghdad, that fear would be realized, and the weapons could then even be used against rebel groups in Syria supported by the U.S.
"This is pretty bad. ... These guys are our mortal enemies. These are the people, or one strain of the group of people, we've been fighting at least since 9/11," said Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Military and Security Studies Program.
He said the gains by ISIS are a major recruiting victory.
“It feeds the perception that the United States is being pushed out of the region and the few accomplishments that we've had seem be unraveling,” he said.
Senators briefed by Defense officials Thursday on Iraq said the United States faces a grave situation.
"We're seeing the unraveling of Iraq," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Several senators said they were surprised to learn that four divisions of the Iraqi military folded in the face of the insurgents.
The lack of discipline by Iraqi security forces is underscoring criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to reach a security agreement with Iraq. Such a deal would have allowed some U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond 2011 to train Iraqi forces.
Negroponte said Thursday that such a deal would have likely made a "significant difference” in Iraq.
President Obama said all options are on the table and both Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Biden signaled U.S. action could be coming soon.
Most observers agreed, however, that the administration had few if any good options for moving forward, adding to the gravity.
Sending in ground troops is a nonstarter shot down by the White House and congressional Republicans alike.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were among the voices calling for U.S. air strikes, but it’s not clear that move would have political support in Congress either.
When President Obama sought to ask Congress’s permission for air strikes in Syria, there was enough opposition to turn him down — though the White House also lacked international support for the move.
There’s also no guarantee the air strikes would work.
“It’s unclear how airstrikes on our part can succeed, unless the Iraqi army is willing to fight, and that’s uncertain given the fact that several Iraqi army divisions have melted away,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on Thursday.
Adding to the complexity for the White House is a diplomatic wrinkle.
Iran on Thursday offered support for Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki’s government.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called al-Maliki, a Shiite sometimes seen as an ally of Iran’s government, and condemned atrocities committed by terrorists.
“Iran stands w/#Iraq against violence & extremism,” Rouhani tweeted.
Finally, the rapid deterioration in central control in Iraq is raising questions about whether the same thing will happen in Afghanistan when all U.S. troops leave at the end of 2016.
While some Democrats have argued the administration should remove troops even earlier, McCain and Graham argue it is likely to lead to more of what is now being seen in Iraq.