WASHINGTON — As the threat from Sunni militants in western Iraq escalated last month, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
But Iraq’s appeals for military assistance have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Barack Obama has insisted was closed when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also cast a spotlight on the limits the White House has imposed on the use of U.S. power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, declined to comment on al-Maliki’s requests and the administration’s response, saying in a statement, “We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions, but the government of Iraq has made clear that they welcome our support” in combating the Islamic extremists.
The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the U.S. is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.
The United States has provided a $14 billion foreign military aid package to Iraq that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and M-16 rifles. It has rushed hundreds of Hellfire missiles as well as ScanEagle reconnaissance drones.
But some former generals who served in Iraq said a greater effort was needed.
James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of the Iraqi army during the surge, summed it up this way: “We should fly some of our manned and unmanned aircraft and put advisers into Iraq that can help the Iraqi army plan and execute a proper defense, then help them transition to a counter offensive.”