WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama came under pressure from lawmakers on Wednesday to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as his failed leadership in the face of an insurgency threatening his country.
As Obama held an hourlong meeting with congressional leaders on U.S. options in Iraq, administration officials joined a chorus of criticism of Maliki, faulting him for failing to heal sectarian rifts that militants have exploited.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that Maliki’s Shiite-led government had asked for U.S. air power to help counter Sunni militants who have overrun northern Iraq.
The general did not say whether Washington would meet the request. But Dempsey signaled that the U.S. military — apparently much like Obama — was in no rush to launch air strikes in Iraq, citing the need to clarify the situation on the ground so any possible targets could be selected “responsibly.”
In Oval Office talks, Obama updated the lawmakers on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to “set aside sectarian agendas” for the sake of national unity, reviewed efforts to strengthen the Iraqi military and sought their views, the White House said. There was no immediate indication he had presented them with his decision on a U.S. course of action.
The United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein and withdrew its troops in 2011, has said Iraq’s government must take steps toward sectarian reconciliation before Obama will decide on any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida splinter group.
Maliki has so far shown little willingness to create a more inclusive administration.
“The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Republican Sen. John McCain, speaking in the Senate, called for the use of American air power, but also urged Obama to “make it make very clear to Maliki that his time is up.”
The Obama administration has not openly sought Maliki’s departure, but has shown signs of frustration with him.
“This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Shia,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the congressional hearing.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Maliki has not done enough “to govern inclusively and that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq.”
But he stopped short of calling for Maliki — in power for eight years and the effective winner of a parliamentary election two months ago — to resign. Asked if Maliki should step down, Carney told reporters: “That’s not, obviously, for us to decide.”
Meeting with lawmakers
Obama invited Senate and House of Representatives leaders to the White House for talks on Wednesday afternoon. White House officials said earlier that Obama had not yet made a decision on what action to take, though he has ruled out sending troops back into combat in Iraq.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said after the meeting with Obama that ISIL’s operations in Iraq and Syria “represent a grave threat” to U.S. interests. “Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force (at the end of 2011),” McConnell said in a statement.
Much attention has been focused on the possible use of air strikes, either by planes or unmanned drones, but U.S. officials have made clear they are concerned about the risk of hitting the wrong targets and causing civilian casualties.
“It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking,” Dempsey testified.
Options under consideration include stepped-up training of Iraqi forces, possibly with U.S. special forces, accelerated delivery of weapons and increased sharing of intelligence.
U.S. officials said Iraq’s request for air support included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.