Obama's pivotal Iraq decision

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President Obama is wrestling with whether to launch airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq who on Wednesday reportedly took control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery.

Ahead of a pivotal meeting Wednesday afternoon with congressional leaders, Obama is weighing the possibility of airstrikes or drone attacks to slow the march of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has taken over much of the country as Iraq’s army has folded.

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National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden on Wednesday said the president “has not made a decision” on airstrikes.

“At this stage, the only thing that remains ruled out is more U.S. troops in a combat role,” Hayden said.

She reiterated that the administration wants to see the Iraqi government of Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki work with other groups on a solution.

“As we've said, the solution that is needed is an Iraqi one — any U.S. military options are in support of that strategy,” she said.

Fast-moving and sometimes contradictory news reports on Wednesday highlighted both the fluidity of the battle in Iraq, and decisionmaking in Washington.

Senior administration officials told The Wall Street Journal that Obama had ruled out airstrikes for now, partly because the U.S. lacked good intelligence on which targets could help shift momentum against the quick-moving insurgency. 

But The New York Times reported that Obama was considering a targeted, highly selective use of airstrikes similar to operations in Yemen. The report did say the attacks would likely be carried out by drones and would not start immediately. 

Reports that Iraq's biggest oil refinery was captured Wednesday by the Sunni extremists could change calculations in Washington by giving ISIS Iraq’s richest resources.

The Iraqi army flatly denied that ISIS fighters had seized the facility in the northern city of Baiji, but eyewitnesses contradicted those claims, according to the Times.

Oil companies, including Exxon Mobile, BP and PetroChina, have also begun evacuating staff from southern Iraq, the International Business Times reported.

And insurgents and government forces clashed just 35 miles north of Baghdad in the city of Baqubah, which, if lost, offers a direct route to the capital city.

Ordering airstrikes could be politically controversial, given opposition from some members of Congress to any action in Iraq and calls by other lawmakers for the administration to first seek authority for a strike from Congress.

The administration is reportedly considering sending a small contingent of special operations forces to help train an Iraqi military that has crumbled as ISIS fighters advance toward Baghdad.

The administration hopes Iraq’s government in Baghdad can mount a counterattack and reverse some of the gains made by ISIS in recent days. That would leave open the option of airstrikes and additional military training or assistance.

It would also allow the U.S. to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept political concessions and make his government more Sunni-inclusive. In recent years, al-Maliki, a Shiite, has purged moderate Sunni leaders from top leadership roles in the government and military.

Obama’s chief objective in meeting with Congress may be convincing leaders that his caution is viable, even as he seeks assurances that he should be allowed to act if he deems it necessary.

Ahead of their meeting Wednesday afternoon, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the White House “has been caught flat-footed from the start” of the Iraq crisis. The top Republican said Obama needed to “offer a coherent strategy to reverse the momentum and spread of terrorism in Iraq and the region.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also demanded that the White House produce a plan for going forward.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, McConnell said the president needed to tell Americans how he planned to combat ISIS before “every gain made by the U.S. and allied troops is lost.”

Those two lawmakers will join House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the Oval Office.

The open question will be whether leaders emerging from that meeting will express disappointment with the president for not pressing forward with more direct military action.

A poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling showed 74 percent of American voters oppose sending U.S. troops into Iraq in response to the crisis — an indication of how unpopular reengaging militarily could be.

The leaders will also likely face questions about whether Obama needs to seek congressional approval for airstrikes, if he decided at some point to proceed along that route.

The White House is likely wary of a repeat of the botched attempt last year to secure authorization for military strikes against Syria.

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) are among the top Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee who have said Obama needed to get new congressional approval before any military action. 

“If he’s asking for any sustained authorization, he’s got to go Congress. I think the Iraq AUMF is functionally obsolete,” said Murphy.

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