Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition won an outright majority of parliamentary seats in a recent national election. Shiite parties won an outright majority.
The Obama administration has decided to hold any military intervention in Iraq in abeyance until it sees clear evidence that the country’s politics and governance are reforming, according to U.S. officials.
After near-nonstop crisis meetings since early this week, President Obama has ordered options prepared for possible airstrikes in Iraq as well as a wide range of direct military assistance short of American boots on the ground.
But after assessing that Baghdad’s fall to advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not imminent, the administration has opted for a short-term strategy that it sees as offering potential long-term gain.
The United States “is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” Obama said Friday in a statement outside the White House.
Obama cautioned that whatever happens, it “is going to take several days. . . . People should not anticipate that this is something that is going to happen overnight.”
The strategy addresses a dilemma. U.S. intervention to stop ISIS forces could help spark all-out sectarian war if it were seen as enabling the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stay in power without making concessions to the long-abused Sunni minority.
Failure to intervene could bring the same result if the Shiite majority activates its own radical militias and rises up to protect the government.
“This will get even more entrenched,” said a senior administration official. “It has the potential to really ignite a sectarian conflagration.”
The administration has been pressing Maliki and other political leaders for years, with virtually no success, to accommodate the interests of Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities. Instead, the sectarian divide that underlies Iraq’s current problems has grown worse, with Maliki and his allies seizing a greater share of the central government and delaying power-sharing initiatives.
Many Sunni citizens of Mosul and other northern cities where ISIS took power this week have greeted the militants with at least initial gratitude after the departure of Iraq’s largely Shiite and often-abusive army.
“This crisis may have the potential to concentrate minds in a way that nothing that’s come before has,” the senior official said. In Baghdad, officials are “looking over the abyss right now. . . . We can’t say it will for sure, but it has the potential to be a defining moment.”
“We’re talking to the entire leadership, starting with the prime minister, to include everyone from all the different communities,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations and policy decisions.
Iraq’s recent national election contributes to the administration’s belief that political actions can be taken quickly and visibly. Shiite parties won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, in results that will be certified in the next few days.
“Certification triggers a calendar that, among other things, requires the new parliament to be seated within two weeks,” the official said, and a series of timelines for forming a new government and choosing a new president, prime minister and other high-level officials.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see the impact of this crisis on that process,” the official said.
There has been some speculation in Iraq that parliament, including some within Maliki’s own bloc, has grown increasingly weary of the man who has served as prime minister since 2006. Since he began a second four-year term in 2010, Maliki has kept the defense and interior portfolios for himself, in addition to continuing as prime minister.
Among the signs the administration is waiting for is government action on “legitimate grievances of the Sunnis . . . [and] reform of the security services,” the official said.
Asked about a risk of the security situation on the ground getting out of hand while the administration waits for political movement, the official said, “That line may well exist. We’ll know it when we see it.” Obama, he said, has ordered military options prepared to “get ahead of” the line and to allow for quick action, if necessary.
But “one thing we learned from our collective experience in Iraq” is the danger of “taking any action without thinking through the consequences,” the official said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The official said the Obama administration was closely consulting with regional governments, which might be asked to provide assembly points or air bases for U.S. military action. Those consultations do not include Iran, he said, where talks with the United States remain limited to Iran’s nuclear program.
As direct intervention and assistance is readied, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, told reporters Friday that “it’s important to remember that we have some 35,000 U.S. military personnel” already based in the Middle East region. The aircraft carrier USS Bush and its strike group of ships remain in the region but, despite some news media reports, have not moved into the Persian Gulf.
The United States has also already provided substantial military equipment to Iraq since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. This week, he said, the United States had “intensified” its intelligence and surveillance assistance “at the request of the Iraqi government.”
The senior administration official cited Iraqi requests for additional military assistance over the past year as evidence that politics in Iraq have already begun to change. Before ISIS began to surface as a potent force in 2013, with fighters moving back and forth from the civil war in neighboring Syria, the Iraqis “really weren’t looking to us for much,” the official said.
Any kind of political solution in Iraq will require the cooperation of Sunni tribal leaders who have long-standing grievances with the Maliki government. “They now believe that the government of Iraq is a greater threat than the Sunni militants,” said Ben Connable, a Rand analyst who met with some of the tribal leaders in March in Jordan.
U.S. troops forged close relationships with many of these tribal leaders in 2007 to push out forces aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Since then, many have felt abandoned by the U.S. government and under attack from Maliki and his security forces. But many of these same Sunni leaders are now desperate for U.S. help and support. “They are available, and they have reached out to the U.S. government,” Connable said.
The cooperation of Sunni tribal leaders could rapidly shift the fortunes of ISIS. “There are only a few thousand ISIS guys,” said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who followed the Middle East. “The only way they can control territory is if they have the complicity of the Sunni tribes.”
The United States can play a critical role as an intermediary in negotiations with Maliki to decentralize power and to offer tribal leaders greater autonomy and a larger role in the security services. “Maliki has got to do all those things. The question is whether he will listen,” Kahl said.
The administration continued consultations with Congress on Friday, although officials said they had not yet determined whether congressional approval was required before taking military action.
Some lawmakers indicated that they have little patience for the administration’s strategy, and little belief that it will work. “The president and his team need to be acting urgently — not ‘reviewing options in the days ahead,’ ” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “We shouldn’t have boots on the ground, but we need to be hitting these columns of terrorists marching on Baghdad with drones now.”
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.