White House Dogged By Group Responsible For Iraq Crisis

The crisis in Iraq has become a political problem for President Obama. Analysts say the White House needs to stop Iraq and Syria from becoming safe havens for terrorists.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq two and a half years ago. But with ISIS now threatening Baghdad, the Obama Administration is considering military options to help the Iraqi government. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us for more on the White House thinking. Mara, we've just heard that ISIS is, at this point, a regional threat but potentially a global terror threat. Is that what the Administration is concerned about?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes, that's clearly what the interest of the United States is here. They want to prevent a big chunk of Iraq and Syria from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, much like Afghanistan was before 9/11.

WERTHEIMER: So what, if anything, can President Obama do about that?

LIASSON: Well, the president met with his national security team last night at the White House to discuss his options. Apparently, no final decisions have been made but clearly the use of drones, airstrikes, training are all on the table. There are some questions about whether the Iraqi Army could take advantage of any airstrikes since they basically folded in the face of the ISIS attacks. But the president continues to insist that any U.S. help would be conditional. It would be conditioned on the Iraqi government becoming more inclusive. And one of the problems there's is that the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Malaki, has governed as a sectarian Shiite. And that's why this is a political problem, not just a military problem.

LIASSON: The president has, as you said, also notified Congress that he has sent around 300 U.S. troops to Iraq to help provide security for the U.S. Embassy. And there might be special forces sent to Iraq but they would be in a training and advisory capacity, not a combat role. That's the one thing he has ruled out.

WERTHEIMER: Now there are not, as you point out, there aren't so many good options here for the United States. So I guess that would explain why the United States and Iran are talking - something that neither country would consider a good option in normal times.

LIASSON: No and that's just one of the head-spinning ironies about this whole crisis. The U.S. and Iran are holding talks in Vienna about Iran's nuclear program. But they held a separate bilateral discussion about whether Iran and the U.S. could cooperate in some way to counter this threat from ISIS. The State Department says they did not discuss military cooperation, though we know that Iranian military leaders are already in Iraq trying to help the government there. But there are some big questions that this raises - whether the U.S. and Iran have the same interests in Iraq. The U.S. wants the Iraqi government to include Sunnis, to be more inclusive. The Iranians would have more of an interest in defending their fellow Shiites in Iraq. And there are big questions about how any cooperation with Iran would affect the nuclear talks.

WERTHEIMER: Now what about political stakes? This is an election year in the United States - of course the president cannot run again but the Congress is up. Is there any effects there?

LIASSON: Foreign policy is not an issue in the midterm elections. However, the president's approval rating does matter and this hurts him. Don't forget, this is the war that he not only promised to end but he claimed that he had ended it. He pulled U.S. troops out. He said very famously that the U.S. was leaving behind a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq - that has proved to be wrong. And Republicans are now criticizing the president for leaving too soon, taking the training wheels off too soon. The critique is if Bush over-reached, President Obama under-reached.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mara Liasson, our national political correspondent. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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