Baghdad has asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against Sunni extremists running amok in Iraq, urging Washington to help halt the instability gripping the country.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that American airstrikes were needed "to break the morale" of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to Reuters.
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Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the request had been received.
While President Barack Obama has said he "won't rule anything out" for Iraq, he has also insisted there will be no "boots on the ground" for a combat mission, wary of drawing the U.S. into another drawn out or complicated military engagement.
So far, the Pentagon has moved several naval ships to the Persian Gulf and the U.S. has sent 170 military personnel to Iraq to shore up security at its embassy in Baghdad.
Defense officials told NBC News that the U.S. military is flying around-the-clock surveillance missions over Iraq, launching Navy FA-18s off the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. Unmanned Global Hawk drones are also flying surveillance missions over Iraq, according to the officials.
While the FA-18's are armed to response to unlikely threats, their mission is purely for surveillance - the officials stressed that the only shooting they are expected to do is of video and photos for intelligence purposes.
"It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them," Dempsey told a congressional hearing on Wednesday in Washington, referring to the ISIS fighters by another acronym. He said he knew that Iraq’s government also needs intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assistance.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned against U.S. airstrikes, saying they would inflict high numbers of civilian casualties.
"America, with its current stance and the statements it has made, does not view such attacks positively," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, according to Reuters.
The Obama administration has insisted that in order for any help from Washington to work, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must bridge deep divides between his Shiite-led government and a Sunni minority to establish national unity.
Maliki is accused of alienating Iraq’s Sunni population through sectarian policies and a heavy-handed approach to dissent.
Casting itself as a champion of the Sunni cause, ISIS has drawn on this resentment and recruited fighters from the ranks of disenfranchised Sunnis.
Vice President Joe Biden reiterated the need for national unity in responding to the threat of ISIS and on security issues going forward when he spoke to Maliki on Wednesday, according to the White House.
It said Biden also discussed the overall security situation and U.S. assistance currently being provided to Iraqi security forces, underscoring that Washington “stands ready to enhance” its support to Iraq in its battle against ISIS and discussing “the steps required to roll back the terrorists’ advances.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the Obama administration for not anticipating the rise of ISIS, who seized control of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul last week and of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace.
ISIS militants also launched a major attack on an oil refinery outside the city of Beiji, north of Baghdad.
Beiji's oil refinery is the country's largest and would be a key prize for militants as they continue to push southward to Iraq's capital.
Reuters contributed to this report.
First published June 19 2014, 1:33 AM