(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday gave the clearest indication yet that President Obama may order military action of some type against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fighters who have been capturing territory in northern and western Iraq – and may do so soon.
Speaking in Baghdad, Kerry appeared to be preparing the ground for such action should the situation worsen, stressing the scale of the threat posed by ISIS not just to Iraq and the region but also to the United States, and emphasizing that if Obama does give the order it would be because of that threat, not in order to bolster Iraq’s current prime minister or side with one Islamic sect against the other.
He also made clear that if deemed necessary, the decision would not be delayed until after Iraqi leaders form a new government. The constitutional deadline for that step is July 1, so Kerry essentially appeared to suggest that military action could take place before next Tuesday.
Up to now, the administration has taken pains to stress the importance of setting up a new and more inclusive government in Baghdad following the April elections, reflecting a view that the security crisis provides the U.S. with the most leverage it may ever have to press Iraq’s leaders to share more power.
But although he did underline the importance of political progress, with ISIS continuing to make advances Kerry also spoke about the need “to separate what the United States might do [against the terrorists] from their government formation process itself.”
Speaking to reporters after talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shi’ite and Sunni leaders, he focused on the threat posed by ISIS, which with allied Sunni insurgents captured key crossings on Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan in recent days and is feared to be planning to target a major Shi’ite shrine in Samarra.
In response to a question, Kerry disputed the notion that Obama would necessarily wait until after the formation of a new government before taking direct action against the jihadists.
“The president is prepared to take action when and if the president decides that is important,” he said. “Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important line. Historically, an assault on Samarra created enormous problems in Iraq. That is something that we all do not want to see happen again. And so the president and the team, the entire security team, are watching this movement and these events very, very closely.”
(In 2006 the golden dome of Samarra’s al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shi’ite Islam, was destroyed, triggering a sustained wave of sectarian bloodshed. A second attack the following year destroyed the mosque’s two ten story-tall minarets, which had survived the earlier bombing. The dome and minarets were later rebuilt.)
Kerry said further that Obama “has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting.”
“And he has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any point in time if he deems it necessary strategically.”
He said that if Obama decides that the urgency of the situation requires action against ISIS, it will have “has nothing to do with support for a specific government, or for – let me rephrase that. It’s not specifically support for the existing prime minister or for one sect or another.”
‘A threat left unattended’
Kerry described the terrorist group, also known as ISIL, as “more extreme than al-Qaeda.”
He also alluded to the 9/11 terror attacks, planned by al-Qaeda from its safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan: “None of us should have to be reminded that a threat left unattended far beyond our shores can have grave, tragic consequences.”
Kerry said ISIS could not be allowed safe haven anywhere, because if that occurred, “they will continue to plot against governments locally, regionally, and abroad. And that is clear from their own communications and from our knowledge of them.”
“ISIL threatens the stability of the entire region and it is a threat also to the United States and to the West – self-declared,” he said.
“The president understands very clearly that supporting Iraq in the struggle at this time is part of meeting our most important responsibility: The security of the American people, fighting terrorism, and standing by our allies.”
Iraq earlier formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against ISIS fighters, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey confirmed while testifying on Capitol Hill last Wednesday.
A day later Obama announced he was sending 300 military advisors to help Iraq deal with the security crisis but held off on ordering airstrikes, although he did say he could yet approve them if the situation on the ground required such a step.