WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is considering a targeted, highly-selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq similar to counterterrorism operations in Yemen rather than an aerial bombardment, a senior administration official said today.
Such a campaign, using either unmanned drones or fighter jets, could last for a prolonged period, the official said. But it is not likely to begin for days, until the United States gathers adequate intelligence about the location of the militants, who are intermingled with the civilian population in Mosul, Tikrit and other cities north of Baghdad.
Even the most ambitious aerial campaign envisioned by administration officials would be far more limited in scope than the one conducted during the Iraq War, this official said, because of the relatively small number of militants involved, the degree to which they are dispersed throughout militant-controlled parts of Iraq, and fears that using bigger bombs would kill Sunni civilians.
At a meeting with his national security advisers at the White House meeting Monday evening, the official said, Obama was presented with a “sliding scale” of military options, which range from supplying the beleaguered Iraqi army with additional advisers, intelligence and equipment to conducting targeted strikes on members of the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Much of the emphasis at the meeting, the official said, was on how to gather useful intelligence about the militants. They are not wearing uniforms or sleeping in barracks; and while there may be periodic convoys to strike, there are no columns of troops or vehicles.
Given all the hurdles to effective military action, Obama is continuing to emphasize a political solution to the crisis, the official said. Administration officials are prodding the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take tangible steps to heal sectarian rifts with the country’s Sunni and Kurdish populations.
“This is not primarily a military challenge,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said to reporters on Air Force One, even as he acknowledged that “Iraq needs significantly more help to break the momentum of extremist groups.”
The United States is also exploring diplomatic options with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, though a senior official played down the extent of the coordination with Iran, after the deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns, briefly broached the crisis with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at nuclear negotiations in Vienna.