President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he was looking at all options in helping the Iraqi government face down a growing insurgency.
"I don't rule anything out,'' Obama said when asked whether the United States is considering drone strikes or any other action to stop the insurgency that has captured several large Iraqi cities, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to flee.
Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House as he met Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said the United States has "a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in Iraq or Syria, for that matter."
He said the United States is prepared to take military action when its national security interests are threatened. To supplement the military and intelligence system already being supplied, Obama said his national security team is "looking at all the options" -- except, his administration later clarified, for sending U.S. troops into Iraq.
The State Department announced Thursday afternoon that it would give an additional $12.8 million in humanitarian aid to address the crisis, which has displaced an estimated 500,000 people. The funding -- with $6.6 million allocated to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and $6.2 million to other international organizations -- will help provide food, shelter and urgent medical care.
Amid rising security concerns, some Americans working in Iraq were being temporarily evacuated by their companies Thursday, the State Department told VOA.
Fox News had reported that "three planeloads" of Americans, mostly military contractors and civilians, were being cleared from a base in Balad. One of the largest training missions in Iraq, Balad lies 93 kilometers, or 58 miles, northwest of Baghdad.
The State Department has no record of the number of Americans living and working in Iraq, a spokesman said. He added that there has been no change in staffing at the U.S. Embassy and consulates.
Calls for international support
In his comments, Obama said the militants' rapid advance in Iraq over the last few days, and the crumbling Iraqi security, emphasized the need for multinational assistance, with "more help [needed] from us and from the international community."
The president said he plans to propose a "partnership" counterterrorism fund. With congressional approval, the United States would provide funding, pooled with that from other countries, to address problems.
Referring to his address last month at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Obama said Iraq's deteriorating security situation underscores "the need for us to have a more robust regional approach to partnering and training."
Obama called upon Iraq to resolve its political conflicts between Sunnis and Shiias, adding the groups must “come together and work diligently. And that is going to require concessions."
Mixed reaction in Congress
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner accused Obama of dithering.
"It is not like we have not seen over the last five or six months these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq,” Boehner said. “Now they have taken control of Mosul, they are 100 miles from Baghdad. And what is the president doing? Taking a nap."
Senators of both parties emerged with grave expressions from a closed-door briefing by military and intelligence officials.
Republican John McCain said the president and his team bear responsibility for the Iraqi crisis.
"I think everybody on his national security team, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ought to be replaced," McCain said, citing what he considers a flawed policy. "It is a total failure. We are facing a disaster here."
Fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joined in criticizing the president, saying Obama should have left residual U.S. support after the 2011 troop withdrawal. "Ten or 15,000 strategically placed U.S. soldiers would have held this together," he said.
McCain and Graham urged Obama to sit down with his generals and consult with retired personnel who oversaw Iraqi operations, including former CIA chief General David Petraeus, to map out a new course, Reuters reported.
Graham also recommended U.S. air strikes against Islamist Sunni militants.
But Democratic Senator Joe Manchin urged his colleagues to tone down the rhetoric, saying it was too dangerous to play politics: "I have always said, if money or military might would have changed that part of the world, we would have done it by now."
Democrat Carl Levin agreed with Manchin.
"We have to be very, very careful and thoughtful before we do anything," Levin said, “and not knee-jerk anything, not jump to any conclusions.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended Obama, saying the deadline for U.S. troops' withdrawal from Iraq "was set by the previous administration."
Speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations, she reminded that Iraq's prime minister hadn't approved a status of force agreement with Washington that would have enabled at least some U.S. troops to remain.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday asked his parliament to convene to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers, but the lawmakers have not done so. Many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session, objecting to handing Maliki, a Shi'ite, increased authority to combat the militants.
International officials condemned the onslaught of the Islamic militants and the rapid deterioration of Iraqi security.
After meeting to discuss the Iraq situation, members of the U.N. Security Council "strongly condemned all terrorist and extremist acts," its chief, Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin, said Thursday. He added that council members also stressed the importance of "inclusive national dialogue" in rebuilding Iraq's government.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the "integrity of Iraq is in question."
And Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said he and his government "won't tolerate this violence, this terror. And in turn, as we announced at the United Nations, we will fight violence, extremism and terrorism in the region and around the world."
VOA's Michael Bowman and Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information also was provided by Reuters.