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Fierce fighting in Kirkuk

Kurdish Peshmerga forces clash with militants from the the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant near Kirkuk.

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Washington: President Barack Obama has still not revealed how he might respond to the crisis in Iraq. On Monday evening he met with his Secretary of Defence, Secretary of State and Attorney-General at the White House as well as national security advisers.

But in keeping with his recent declaration to reporters that the key to foreign policy was not to ''do stupid shit'', the President signalled that people should not expect an immediate response.  

''Just to give people a sense of - of timing here, you know, although events on the ground in Iraq have been happening very quickly, our ability to plan - whether it's military action or work with the Iraqi government on some of these political issues - is going to take several days,'' he said.

Crisis talks: Barack Obama has signalled that America's response will not be immediate.

Crisis talks: Barack Obama has signalled that America's response will not be immediate. Photo: Reuters

''So people should not anticipate that this is something that is going to happen overnight. We want to make sure that we - we have good eyes on the situation there. We want to make sure that we gathered all the intelligence that's necessary so that if in fact I do direct and order any actions there, that they're targeted, they're precise and they're going to have an effect.''

But around Washington, DC, his limited options are already being debated.

1. Protecting American personnel

Back to Baghdad: US Army soldiers in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. This week, 275 US troops were  deployed to Baghdad to protect American interests.

Back to Baghdad: US Army soldiers in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. This week, 275 US troops were deployed to Baghdad to protect American interests. Photo: AP

Obama will use whatever force he believes necessary to protect America’s embassy and citizens. He has already notified Congress that about 275 troops equipped for full combat have been deployed to help protect America’s embassy. The Pentagon has said 170 arrived in Baghdad over the weekend while another 100 moved into the broader region.  There are conflicting reports that another 100 special forces troops may have been dispatched to the region to help with training and targeting should air strikes be approved.

2. Full military intervention

Obama has already said he will not send troops into Iraq to engage in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), beyond strengthening the force already charged with securing America’s embassy. Obama was elected to extract the US from Iraq and shows no inclination to veer from that path. Recent statements suggest  he believes that even if he was willing to engage militarily, any action would be pointless as long as the Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki engages in the sectarianism that has helped provoke the fighting. A new poll shows 74 per cent of Americans support Obama’s decision not to return militarily to Iraq.

Call to arms:  Shiite volunteers take up arms provided by the government to fight the ISIL insurgency.

Call to arms: Shiite volunteers take up arms provided by the government to fight the ISIL insurgency. Photo: AFP

3. Strikes by US navy aircraft and cruise missiles

Obama has not ruled out such strikes and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and two guided missile ships into the Persian Gulf on Saturday. Such strikes remain difficult because they depend on accurate targeting by ground observers and the US does not trust Iraq to do this. They also lead to the possibility of pilots being shot down and needing rescue or recovery, perhaps necessitating the deployment of special forces. Further, ISIL fighters are well dispersed among the civilian population, though some analysts suggest airpower could still be capable of blunting massed ISIL attacks.

4. Drone strikes

Iraqi men sit with their weapons in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in  Diyala province on June 14 after they volunteered to join the fight following the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Iraqi men sit with their weapons in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in Diyala province on June 14 after they volunteered to join the fight following the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Photo: AFP

Drones are less risky and cheaper than air strikes. They would also provide political cover to Maliki who could credibly claim he had not allowed US troops to return, as has been noted by Defence One, and to the Obama administration which could demonstrate that it was taking significant action. However, drones are less powerful than air strikes, may kill civilians and demand good ground intelligence.

5. Intelligence and logistical support of Iraq

The US has already increased its drone surveillance since the ISIL attacks and is sharing intelligence with Iraq. About $15 billion in equipment, training and services have already been sent to Iraq since 2011, but more assistance is planned. The US recently sent 300 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and another 200 are on the way, the White House said last week. In addition the US delivered 24 armed reconnaissance helicopters, 10 reconnaissance drones, thousands of rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and special operations forces began a month of counter-terrorism training with Iraqi soldiers. According to the State Department further arms sales have been expedited. Iraq is spending more than $100 million to buy as many as 200 heavily armed Humvees and a deal worth billions of dollars will create an advanced air defence system for the Iraqi government. Lockheed Martin is selling 36 F-16 fighter jets to Baghdad, with the first planes scheduled for delivery before the end of the year and the administration is selling Iraq 24 Apache attack helicopters.

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has been deployed to the Persian Gulf.

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has been deployed to the Persian Gulf. Photo: AP

6. Increased co-operation with Iran

The United States’ second top diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns has already spoken about the crisis with Iranian officials on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna. The meeting came after Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo News he would be open to ''discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform''. The Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby clarified on Monday that this would not include military co-ordination. The United States has ''no intentions, no plans to co-ordinate military activities with Iran''. The Guardian has reported that Iran has already sent 2000 advance troops to help repulse the ISIL attack. AP has reported that the US was notified of the deployment in advance.

7. Allow for the splintering of Iraq

A Predator drone: They're cheaper than air strikes, but require good ground intelligence and may kill civilians.

A Predator drone: They're cheaper than air strikes, but require good ground intelligence and may kill civilians. Photo: AP

Another option being discussed in DC is allowing Iraq to devolve into a federation along ethnic and religious lines. This idea first gained prominence here in 2006 when then-senator Joe Biden argued in favour of a ''soft partition'' of Iraq, allowing Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites to govern their own autonomous regions within Iraq, under a weak central authority based in Baghdad. ''Some will say moving toward strong regionalism would ignite sectarian cleansing. But that’s exactly what is going on already, in ever-bigger waves,'' Biden wrote in a 2006 New York Times op-ed.  ''Others will argue that it would lead to partition. But a breakup is already under way. As it was in Bosnia, a strong federal system is a viable means to prevent both perils in Iraq.''  Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden's co-author on that Times op-ed, stands by the premise.  ''It’s the only solution...  I don’t know if it will work. But in terms of what could work, it’s the only thing,'' Politico quotes him as saying in June  

''Iraq is at a crossroads,'' said Osama al-Nujayfi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq's Council of Representatives, at the Brookings Institution in Washington last January. ''And I do think federalism could solve many of the problems we face.'' Kenneth Pollack, a Mid-East expert at Brookings, appears to agree. ''To make Iraq work probably requires a shift of power from the centre to the periphery.''

8. Nothing

While hawks in Congress are demanding military action in some form, others, most notably the MIT professor Barry Rosen, are mounting a case for doing nothing. He argues in a piece for Politico that America’s 11-year engagement in Iraq has failed to unite and stabilise the country and that the cost in blood and treasure is sunk. Prime Minister Maliki’s ''heavy-handed employment of surveillance, incarceration, and violence has driven Sunni Arab fence sitters into the arms of [ISIL] fanatics''. He believes a fractured Iraq would be a haven for terrorists, but that much of the world already is and America has hardened itself against terrorist attacks.

Fairfax Media