WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered an aircraft carrier — the USS George H.W. Bush — to move from the northern Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf as President Barack Obama considers possible military options for Iraq.
Hagel’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, says the order will give the president added flexibility if military action is required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq.
Accompanying the carrier will be the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun. The ships are expected to complete their move into the Gulf later Saturday.
The ships carry Tomahawk missiles, which could reach Iraq. The Bush is carrying fighter jets that could also easily get to Iraq, where a fast-moving Islamic insurgency is gaining territory.
President Barack Obama vowed Friday that the United States would not be “dragged back” into military action in Iraq as long as leaders in Baghdad refuse to reform a political system that has left the county vulnerable to a fast-moving Islamic insurgency.
The president ruled out the possibility of putting American troops on the ground in Iraq, but said he was considering a range of other options drawn up by the Pentagon. Administration officials said those include strikes using drones or manned aircrafts, as well as boosts in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts.
The U.S., which routinely has an array of ships in the region, has the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and an accompanying Navy cruiser in the northern Arabian Sea, while two Navy destroyers from the Bush strike group have been operating in the Persian Gulf.
Still, the president appeared to leave himself a clear off-ramp by making military action contingent on a “serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences” between the nation’s Sunnis and Shiites.
“We can’t do it for them,” he said. “And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed.”
U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Baghdad is unlikely to fall, according to officials who were briefed on the matter but could not be quoted by name because the briefings were classified.
Officials said they estimate there are several thousand insurgents but well short of 10,000.
The security situation in Iraq rapidly deteriorated last week as the al-Qaida-inspired group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant quickly overran Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases — often meeting little resistance from state security forces. The militants have vowed to press on to Baghdad.
The rebellion has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrew its military in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. Obama said the militants also pose a threat to U.S. national security interests, which could ultimately be used as a justification for a unilateral American strike.
Over the past several days, the United States has urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make his government more inclusive and avoid further alienating Iraqi Sunnis who are eyeing the insurgency as an alternative to supporting the Shiite leadership in Baghdad. That message was delivered to al-Maliki in a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden and also personally by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, who has years-long ties to the prime minister and is in Iraq this week to help negotiate a solution
Obama suggested it could take several days to gather the intelligence necessary to make a final decision on the U.S. response to the situation. Following his statement, Obama departed on a four-day trip to North Dakota and California. Officials said he had no plans to cut it short.
Congressional Republicans accused Obama of ignoring repeated warnings about the worsening conditions on the ground.
“It’s long past time for the president to lay out a plan for how we can reverse the momentum and spread of terrorism in Iraq and a region that is critical to U.S. national interests,” said House Speaker John Boehner.