President Barack Obama says his national security advisers are preparing "a range of options" for U.S. assistance to Iraq's government as it faces an assault by al-Qaida inspired Islamist militants.
Speaking at the White House Friday, President Obama said the course of U.S. action will become clear "in the days ahead." He said no American troops will be sent to Iraq.
The president said the militants who have overrun parts of Iraq are a threat to the Baghdad government and people throughout the country, and pose an active threat to American interests as well. He said division among Iraq's leadership has led to the current crisis.
"Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis an opportunity to claim their own future," Obama said. "Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that's created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government as well as their security forces."
Obama said U.S. assistance to Iraq must be matched with a "serious and sincere" effort by Iraq's leaders to work together and set aside differences, and to improve their security forces. He said in the absence of any type of political effort, short-term military assistance will not succeed.
In a development Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is ready to help Iraq, if asked, and would consider working with Tehran's longtime foe, the United States in fighting Sunni extremists if Washington decides to take strong action against the fighters. Iran has developed close ties in recent years with the Shi'ite led government in Baghdad.
In quick strikes this week, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and advanced within 90 kilometers of Baghdad.
Late Thursday, ISIL fighters seized the towns of Jalawla and Saadiyah in the ethnically divided eastern province of Diyala.
A spokesman for the Sunni militants, who wish to install an Islamic government, vowed they would push into Baghdad and on to Karbala, a city southwest of Baghdad that is one of the holiest sites for Shi'ite Muslims.
The forces of Iraq's Shi'ite-led government have seemingly been powerless to stop the advance, often abandoning their posts and fleeing, leaving weapons behind.
A spokesman for United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said Friday the U.N. is receiving reports suggesting the number of people killed in Iraq in recent days may run into the hundreds, and the number of injured may be approaching 1,000. Pillay's office also said the militants are believed to be hunting down anyone associated with the Iraqi government.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday said he expects President Obama to decide quickly on what steps the U.S. will take about Iraq. Speaking during a conference in London, Kerry also said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should do more to address the sectarian divide in his country. He said the fighting has served as a "wakeup call" to the Iraqi government.
Prime Minister Maliki this week sought to convene an emergency session of parliament to declare a national state of emergency. But no quorum could be reached, as many of Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session, objecting to handing Maliki, a Shi'ite, increased authority to combat the militants.