By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 13, 2014 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel continues to monitor the situation in Iraq, where an armed militant extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has taken over several cities and routed segments of the Iraqi armed forces, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said today.
Reports from Iraq say jihadists aligned with ISIL, also known as ISIS, captured the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and now are moving south toward Baghdad. Reports from Mosul say thousands of Iraqi soldiers threw down their arms and fled.
“Over the last 36 hours, the secretary has met a number of times with senior military leaders to discuss events on the ground and to prepare options for the president's consideration,” Kirby said in a meeting with reporters. Without detailing the options, he said that they “cover a wide range of military capabilities and will be designed, as [President Barack Obama said today], to help break the momentum of ISIL's progress and bolster Iraqi security forces.”
Clearly, Kirby added, “any decision to employ these options rests solely with the commander in chief.”
An hour before the Pentagon news briefing, Obama delivered a statement on Iraq from the south lawn of the White House. The president said Iraqi security forces have been unable to defend several cities, allowing ISIL terrorists to overrun part of Iraq’s territory.
“This poses a danger to Iraq and its people,” he said. “And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well.”
Any action the United States may take to help Iraqi security forces will happen only in conjunction with a serious effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, promote stability, account for legitimate interests of all Iraq’s communities, and continue building the capacity of its security force, Obama said.
The United States has redoubled efforts across the region to help build more capable counterterrorism forces, he added, and it will pursue intensive diplomacy inside Iraq and with countries in the region.
“Events on the ground in Iraq have been happening very quickly [but] our ability to plan, whether it’s military action or work with the Iraqi government … is going to take several days, Obama said.
“We want to make sure that we have good eyes on the situation there,” the president said. “We want to make sure that we’ve gathered all the intelligence that’s necessary” so that if he does order action there, it is targeted, precise and will have an effect.
At the Pentagon, Kirby said that for several months, the Defense Department has been working in close coordination with the State Department to augment the capabilities of Iraqi security forces. The focus has been on increasing their capacity to defend themselves and their people and remain responsible for taking on the threats over the long term, he added.
In March, he said, the Defense Department delivered 100 Hellfire missiles on an expedited timetable, bringing the total to about 300, in addition to millions of rounds of small-arms fire, tank ammunition and helicopter-fired rockets.
“Late last year,” the admiral said, “we delivered additional armed Scout helicopters to the Iraqi armed forces. And a few weeks ago, we notified Congress of an additional $1 billion in foreign military sales.”
The United States already provides Iraq with about $15 billion in military equipment under the foreign military sales program.
Hagel believes it’s imperative that Iraq and its neighbors have strong security forces to meet evolving threats from the violence spilling over from Syria's borders, Kirby said.
“In keeping with that effort, we continue to provide counterterrorism support,” he added, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities.
“We have intensified this ISR support in recent days at the request of the Iraqi government,” Kirby said, adding that the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and its strike group remain in the region and are ready for any tasking from Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command.
“I also think it's important to remember that we have some 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the Middle East region,” Kirby said. “Our forces there work closely each and every day with our partners to defend against external aggression and terrorist networks that threaten America and its allies.”
The Defense Department’s job is to provide the commander in chief with options, Kirby said.
“We are doing that,” he added, “and as we have been in so many other places in the world, we're confident that we will be able to provide the commander in chief options to be as flexible as he [wants] to be.”