As Iraq Comes Apart At The Seams, Washington Weighs What To Do

Grave questions face the Iraqi government, and U.S. officials are scrambling to decide what to do. The U.S. helped shape the country; is there anything it can — or would — do to keep it together?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Iraq seems to be breaking apart at the seams. Sunni extremists have taken more territory as government troops abandon their posts. Today, President Obama said Iraq needs help to counter the extremist group known as ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq, or Syria for that matter.

CORNISH: The U.S. has been increasing its military assistance to Baghdad, but the options are limited, as we hear from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For those experts who argue that the U.S. should have tried harder to reach an agreement with Iraq to leave some troops there rather than pullout completely in 2011, this is their nightmare scenario. Retired Army officer Rick Brennan did a study for the RAND Corporation that showed that Iraqi security forces just weren't ready.

RICK BRENNAN: The Iraqi security forces lacked a large number of capabilities that would be needed to conduct large-scale operations. No air force capability to speak of that can effectively target anybody on the ground. They're currently operating with two Cessnas with Hellfire missiles; it's all they have in the entire country.

KELEMEN: This week, Iraqi forces are deserting in large numbers as Sunni extremists gain ground. And Brennan says there's little the U.S. can do to help in a quick and meaningful way.

BRENNAN: There's virtually no way of trying to get that Iraqi military back up to speed within the time that they need. And that's the real challenge for Iraq today, they've got a military that is fundamentally falling apart.

KELEMEN: On the other side, the extremists are well-funded and well-armed fighters, he says, with years of battlefield experience in both Iraq and in Syria. And they've been able to exploit Sunni discontent with the divisive policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. President Obama says Baghdad has to take steps to be more inclusive.

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OBAMA: This should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government, there has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists.

KELEMEN: A top State Department official has been in Baghdad all week trying to do just that. But for years, Maliki has ignored U.S. calls to be more inclusive. And that's one reason why it's hard for the U.S. to go out on a limb for him now, says Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: The hesitancy is in part based on a very pragmatic U.S. approach and understanding that even though we had 160,000-plus troops in Iraq, it was very difficult for us to stop the forces of sectarian politics.

KELEMEN: That weighs on the White House, he says, as it considers Iraqi calls for U.S. airstrikes against the extremists.

KATULIS: It can increase its security and intelligence cooperation, it might even consider these proposed airstrikes, but I want to stress, I think the hesitancy comes out of the sense of do we have a partner that we can rely on that is going to use our considerable powers in a way that actually builds greater cohesion and unity in Iraq.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is not considering sending troops back to Iraq, though President Obama says he won't rule out other options, such as airstrikes. But he also says the U.S. can't be everywhere at all times. And that's why he's calling for a counter-terrorism partnership fund. His critics argue that could help countries in the future, but won't be set up in time to help Iraq put out the sectarian flames now. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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