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Obama pushes Iraqis to mend sectarian rifts


New York Times: While Mr. Obama has ordered unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq to gather intelligence for possible strikes on militant positions, the official said, the White House’s emphasis, when Mr. Obama returns to Washington on Monday from a weekend in Southern California, will be on prodding Iraq’s leaders to form a new national unity government.


The New York Times 

By Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — As President Obama weighs airstrikes against marauding militants in Iraq, he has concluded that any American military action must be conditioned on a political plan to try to heal Iraq’s sectarian rifts, a senior administration official said on Sunday.

While Mr. Obama has ordered unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq to gather intelligence for possible strikes on militant positions, the official said, the White House’s emphasis, when Mr. Obama returns to Washington on Monday from a weekend in Southern California, will be on prodding Iraq’s leaders to form a new national unity government.

The United States, this official said, has asked Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, to work with the Kurds, to seek to persuade the disaffected Sunni minority that the next government will be an “ally not an adversary” and to overhaul Iraq’s routed army. All three groups must be adequately represented in Baghdad, he said.

The president’s two-track response, the official said, stems from his belief that military strikes on radical Sunni militants, absent parallel measures to reform Iraq’s government, will simply hand the country over to competing Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni fighters, and a future of unending sectarian strife.

The White House believes it has a brief window to pursue diplomacy, this official said, because after a week of surprising advances across Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west, the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now faces more motivated Iraqi troops and fiercely motivated Shiite militias, defending the gates of Baghdad.

But it is unclear how far the Iraqis would need to go in establishing a multi-sectarian government that would satisfy Mr. Obama. Deep sectarian divisions have persisted since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. As recently as 2010, for example, Mr. Obama personally pursued an initiative asking Mr. Maliki to share power with the leader of a bloc representing many Sunnis; the plan failed.

In addition to such power-sharing measures, the United States has long urged the Iraqis to take other steps, such as integrating Sunni tribes in western Iraq into the nation’s security structure and making their fighters eligible for the same death benefits as Iraqi troops.

On Sunday, reflecting American concerns over the militant advance, the State Department said it plans to evacuate some of its personnel from the heavily fortified American Embassy in Baghdad to Jordan and consulates in more secure cities in Iraq. Most of the staff will remain in Baghdad.

Mr. Obama’s push for political reconciliation has put him in a potential alignment with Iran, a Shiite backer of the Maliki government. On Sunday, Iranian officials seemed to echo Mr. Obama’s admonition to Mr. Maliki that he needed to be more inclusive of the Sunnis to quell the insurgency.

“Iraqi politicians should make tough decisions in order to keep unity in their country,” Hamid Aboutalebi, a top deputy to President Hassan Rouhani, wrote on Twitter. In another tweet, he said, “Iran and the U.S. are the only countries who can manage the Iraq crisis.”

The messages came a day after Mr. Rouhani said that Iran would not rule out working with the United States to battle Sunni fighters. On Friday, American officials said that Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, had flown to Iraq with dozens of his officers to advise Iraq’s beleaguered commanders.

While the United States and Iran have both backed Mr. Maliki — and American officials said they were still standing by him now, while not endorsing a third term for him as prime minister — they have had sharply different goals: The United States has urged him to lead a cross-sectarian government; Iran has wanted him at the head of a Shiite-dominated government.

The deepening crisis in Iraq shadowed a getaway weekend for Mr. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Malia in the desert near Palm Springs, Calif. Before teeing off Sunday morning at a golf course owned by the technology billionaire Larry Ellison, Mr. Obama was briefed by his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, on Iraq and on the evacuation of embassy personnel in Baghdad, the White House said.

The president remains open to the use of airstrikes, either by drones or by fighter jets, an official said, and the Pentagon has moved the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush and two other warships carrying long-range missiles into the Persian Gulf to be in position for a potential military operation.

Among the options under consideration, the official said, are hitting the militants on their front lines north of Baghdad to try to roll them back, striking border crossings with Syria to close off access to Iraq from Syria, or hitting their staging areas in the border region.

But identifying the proper targets is difficult and time-consuming, the official said, particularly since the militants have become more interspersed with other militias and ordinary people as they have advanced across Iraq. The United States is using aerial surveillance.

The complex calculations facing Mr. Obama are evident in the advice he is getting from his critics. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that the United States should conduct airstrikes against the militants, if necessary, working with Iran, given the common interest in saving Baghdad.

The White House has been considering whether, and how, to initiate discussions with Iran on Iraq’s security. Josh Earnest, the deputy spokesman, said Friday no such talks had occurred but did not rule out the possibility they could in the future.

As Mr. Obama pursues a political solution, officials said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State John Kerry would both play higher-profile roles. Mr. Biden, who held the Iraq portfolio during the administration’s first term, called Mr. Maliki last week. The president has not yet spoken to the Iraqi prime minister during this crisis.

On Saturday, Mr. Kerry called Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, to urge the government to ratify the results of its recent parliamentary election “without delay,” and stick to “its constitutionally mandated time frame for forming a new government,” the State Department said.

Mr. Kerry also said Iraq must respect “the rights of all citizens — Sunni, Kurd and Shia — as it fights against terrorism.” On Sunday, he made a round of calls to officials in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the crisis.

The last time Iraq teetered on the brink of wholesale civil war, prompting George W. Bush’s deployment of additional American troops, a breakthrough came when the United States enlisted Sunni tribal leaders to form militias that supported the Maliki government. In the intervening years, however, Mr. Maliki alienated Sunni tribal leaders, cutting off funding to their forces and driving some key Sunnis out of government posts.

The United States, a senior Iraqi official said, is “conditioning its actions on genuine reconciliation and cooperation among Iraqi leaders, leading to a new representative government.”

Whether those leaders are prepared to take those kinds of steps, especially during a raging insurgency, is far from clear. Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, noted that the Strategic Framework Agreement between Iraq and the United States “talks about the importance of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

“The urgency on the ground should be enough reason to act,” Mr. Faily said in an interview. “We think that addressing the immediate threat to Iraq’s sovereignty should take priority over discussions regarding political reform.”

Mark Landler reported from Rancho Mirage, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington. Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran. 

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