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August 07. 2014 6:38PM

Obama weighs Iraq crisis response; airstrikes among options

WASHINGTON _ U.S. officials are "closely monitoring" a potential "humanitarian catastrophe" in northern Iraq but will not be sending combat troops back into the country, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Earnest said the United States would cooperate with Iraqi military and Kurdish authorities in the volatile region, but he declined to respond to several questions about whether the U.S. would consider any military action to protect refugees fleeing advancing Sunni militants.

"I'm not in position to shed light on the president's thinking" on the subject, Earnest said.

White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Barack Obama was weighing whether sufficient core U.S. interests are at stake in the situation to justify the use of American military power. Obama has been meeting with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other national security advisers as he reviews the situation.

Obama has authorized the use of military force to head off threatened humanitarian crises in the past, most notably in Libya. How that precedent will affect his decision-making on the current situation is unclear.

In Libya, what seemed at first to be a relatively low-cost, uncomplicated operation to protect civilians threatened by government forces quickly expanded and grew more complicated. Ultimately, the U.S. and its NATO allies backed Libyan militias that overthrew the government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. The country has seen increasingly violent chaos over the past three years.

In Iraq, U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that the threat posed by the Islamic State militia, a breakaway al-Qaida group, cannot be solved by U.S. military action and that Iraqi leaders need to form a more inclusive government that can reach out to the country's Sunni population, a point that Earnest emphasized.

There are "no American military solutions" to the crisis, Ernest said. However, he left open the possibility that Obama might take other actions to support humanitarian efforts in the region. Those could include airdrops of food or water and airstrikes designed to secure supply routes.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly from the Yazidi religious minority and Christian groups in northern Iraq, have fled in recent days as the Sunni militants from the Islamic State and their allies have seized control of towns in northern Iraq.

Many refugees have taken shelter in barren mountains in the area. Kurdish authorities, who control much of northern Iraq, and international aid groups have said that many of the refugees face death from thirst or starvation.

The minority communities have been "specifically targeted" in a "cold and calculated" way, Earnest said. The U.S. is "deeply concerned" about their condition and has been consulting with the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities about how to help, he said.



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