World Bulletin / News Desk
Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the rebels seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government forces.
But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.
Baghdad said it wanted U.S. airstrikes as the rebels, led by fighters from the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.
"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power," Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: "It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them."
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.
In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for airstrikes "to break the morale" of ISIL.
OBAMA CONSULTS CONGRESS
U.S. President Barack Obama briefed congressional leaders on Wednesday on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to "set aside sectarian agendas," reviewed options for "increased security assistance" and sought their views, the White House said.
A senior administration official said afterward that Obama did not lay out a course of action at the meeting and had yet to make a final decision.
But a U.S. national security source said the administration had quietly started consulting Congress about a plan for redirecting some current intelligence funding to help finance expanded U.S. operations in Iraq.
Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy. But the White House said more talks with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear programme, are unlikely for the time being.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending U.S. troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a "civil war".
Obama is facing pressure from U.S. lawmakers to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of the rebellion threatening his country.
"The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, the minority who ran Iraq until U.S. troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday with three Iraqi leaders, including Maliki, to urge unity against rebels and to emphasize the need to form an inclusive government after April's elections.
In his call with Maliki, the White House said Biden "underscored that the United States stands ready to enhance our support to all Iraqis in their fight against ISIL. At the same time, he emphasized the need for the Prime Minister - and all Iraqi leaders - to govern in an inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq's population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq's diverse communities."
MALIKI MEETS SUNNI, KURDISH LEADERS
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.
"No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion," Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of "reviewing the previous course" of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.
Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.
In a televised address on Wednesday, Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce "those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas".
But Maliki's government has so far relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia - many believed to be funded and backed by Iran - have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the rebels seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.Last Mod: 19 Haziran 2014, 09:26