The Obama administration is weighing options for an imminent response to the crisis in Iraq, including air strikes against the Islamist extremists who have overrun Iraqi cities to within striking distance of Baghdad and expanded intelligence and targeting assistance for Iraqi military forces.
In the face of rapid extremist advances and the collapse of Iraqi military defences in the north, the administration has decided temporarily to put aside its long-term goal of pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for political reforms in favour of immediate action to stabilise the security situation.
President Barack Obama said yesterday he was examining options short of sending troops to help Iraq counter the Sunni onslaught.
"We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces," Obama said.
Administration officials said Obama was considering air strikes using drones or manned aircraft. Other short-term options included an increase in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts. The US also is likely to increase various forms of aid to Iraq.
An administration official had earlier said that Maliki's government requested strikes from drones or piloted aircraft "in the last several weeks" and additional intelligence-sharing as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stepped up attacks in Iraq.
As long as there is an invitation from the sovereign government, the US does not need United Nations approval to act.
Officials and experts on the region said they were more surprised at the speed with which the Iraqi military retreated than by the audacious ISIL assaults.
"The element of shock came in how quickly the Iraqi security forces seem to have folded," said a senior Western diplomat.
"We were surprised by the minimal appetite to stand and fight, given that Iraqi forces are about a million strong and are well equipped and trained by the United States, Britain" and other countries, the diplomat said.
In comments on Thursday, Obama said events this week should be "a wake-up call for the Iraqi government". Since the US military withdrawal in 2011, the US has been pushing Maliki, whose Shiite bloc won parliamentary elections in April, to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds.
"That accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state, and that then carries over into their military capacity," Obama said. "There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia … inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists," he said. "And that is going to require concessions on the part of both … that we haven't seen so far."
As the administration contemplated its next move, there was no shortage of critics who charged its military withdrawal from Iraq, its hesitation to intervene in neighbouring Syria's civil war - or both - had precipitated the crisis by allowing militant forces to grow.
"The Iraqis themselves opted not to keep US forces" there, by refusing to sign a status-of-forces agreement in 2011, said James Jeffrey, who served as US ambassador to Iraq until mid-2012.
Whether a residual force in Iraq consisted of the 25,000 troops US commanders originally requested, or the 2,500 Obama finally agreed to before the status agreement fell apart, it "would have given us a platform to do … the counterterrorism things we are so good at", Jeffrey said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse