Obama Rules Out Ground Troops; What Else Can U.S. Do In Iraq?

President Obama said that he will help the Iraqi military break the momentum of the militants on the march to Baghdad. The Pentagon said that one possible option could include airstrikes. But the president said that any military help must include political solutions from the Iraqi government, which has helped fuel the unrest by failing to reach out to its Sunni minority.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Once again, President Obama must decide whether to intervene in a Mideast conflict. And once again, it's Iraq - a war the president has long said had come to an end. Today at the White House, the president said he would not send U.S. ground troops back to Iraq. But he said he would be considering other military options over the next few days.

NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, joins me now to talk about what those options might include. And, Tom, if the U.S. is not going to be sending troops, what are some of the other possibilities that the Pentagon is looking at?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, the U.S. already is providing surveillance to the Iraqi forces. And that's coming from drones. They can send back live pictures of these militant locations. So you could see them provide even more of this kind of assistance to the Iraqi forces. So that's one option.

Another option would be sending more sophisticated weapons. They're expecting to get Apache attack helicopters in the coming months. So you could accelerate that shipment.

BLOCK: But, Tom, the other option that we've been hearing a lot about is actually U.S. airstrikes. How seriously are those being considered? And what, potentially, could those achieve?

BOWMAN: Well, it's being seriously considered. That's one of the other options the Pentagon said today. So drone aircraft or manned aircraft could mount bombing runs. There's a carrier in the northern Arabian Sea that could be heading into the Persian Gulf and launch these attacks targeting those militant forces, who are sometimes in pickup trucks concentrated on the highway. You could also hit, let's say, headquarters or makeshift barracks. So you could find some targets.

BLOCK: I did talk about this yesterday, Tom, with retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling on the program. He's the former top commander in northern Iraq during the war. And he was pretty skeptical that airstrikes like that might succeed. Let's listen to part of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARK HERTLING: Unless you have some real firm control on the strikes, you're just bombing things. To just say, hey, we're going to go under the control of Iraqi ground forces and bomb their targets would be extremely difficult without controllers on the ground. And I'm not sure what it would do to the types of forces we're seeing now other than a last ditch effort.

BOWMAN: Right, and that's what I'm hearing at the Pentagon as well. What the general said - that, first of all, you need experienced personnel on the ground with sophisticated equipment to call in these airstrikes. But of course, the president said no U.S. troops on the ground.

And also you might not have enough aircraft. You might need repeated bombing runs. So you may be taking out a few targets but not having much impact. And the general said this last ditch effort - that could be used only if you start seeing troops heading into Baghdad.

BLOCK: A problem, too, Tom - if these insurgent forces are pretty much embedded with civilian population, there could be a lot of civilian casualties.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, that's another problem, too. You could hit civilians while you're trying to go after some of these militants.

BLOCK: Tom, the president said that U.S. military action would be linked - had to be linked - to political reforms by Iraq's government. Basically, that any military action won't work unless these underlying sectarian political disagreements are addressed. Is there really time for that kind of approach when you look at the speed with which the insurgents are on the move?

BOWMAN: Well, whatever option the president chooses, he's pressuring Maliki to reach out to parts of Iraqi society he's been ignoring or even targeting - and we're talking, specifically, the Sunni minority here. And I spoke, a couple of years ago, to senior U.S. military officer who told me he had just returned from Baghdad. And he urged Maliki to be more inclusive. And he said Maliki told him, listen, I think I know what I'm doing in my own country. And here we are with extremist forces now taking major Iraqi cities. So right now, you sort of have a four alarm fire raging here. And you may need to put out that fire before debating how to build a better fire department.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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