The White House is considering a series of airstrikes in addition to humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq, to assist the thousands of religious minorities trapped on a mountaintop by Sunni militants storming across the surrounding valleys who have taken the ancient city of Sinjar and are threatening the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday would not confirm that military or humanitarian efforts were planned but some type of White House action seemed imminent.
"There are many problems in Iraq," Earnest said. "This one that we're talking about right now has a particularly -- is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high."
Pentagon officials declined to discuss specific options, saying only that the Defense Department "has been working urgently and directly" with Baghdad to coordinate Iraqi airdrops to the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, and others in need.
"The Government of Iraq has initiated airdrops in the region and we are in constant communication with them on how we can help coordinate additional relief, enhance their efforts, and provide direct assistance wherever possible," a defense official said in an email.
But after meeting with his national security team Thursday morning, President Barack Obama seemed boxed into having to take some sort of action.
The situation has quickly grown dire. Humanitarian groups said earlier this week that as many as 40,000 civilians, many of whom are Yazidi, were trapped as vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces defending the area lost ground to the Islamic State. Although the United States has supported Iraqi forces, including providing hundreds of Hellfire missiles, the peshmerga say they are poorly equipped to counter the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS.
Earnest on Thursday called the situation a humanitarian catastrophe. He also said the administration is deeply concerned about reports that several hundred girls had been abducted from the area.
Compounding the deteriorating situation is the Islamic State's capture of Iraq's largest dam, the Mosul. What that spells for civilians if, say, the militants blow it up, sending a 65-foot wall of water downriver, has been a concern since the Islamic State began its offensive across northern Iraq in the spring.
The White House continues to claim there are no military options -- only political ones. However, it feels it must make the distinction that Obama will not send "combat boots on the ground," meaning other military options are on the table. Since the crisis began, Washington has been urging Baghdad to commit to a political reconciliation with the country's Sunni majority and other groups not represented in the central government.
The White House, which has long been cautious when it comes to intervening anywhere militarily, will make a careful calculation when it comes to Iraq. But the humanitarian crisis and whatever offensive action the United States may take are two entirely different things. Humanitarian operations can be open-ended. Direct offensive action, however, won't be -- not for this administration.
"My expectation would be that they wouldn't start an offensive action that didn't have a clear end state," said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Despite the Islamic State's brutality, the group won't go so far as to provoke a full confrontation with the U.S. military, Alterman said.
"ISIS has been pretty deliberate about what they can do and not do," he said.
The Pentagon has been conducting an ongoing assessment of Iraqi security forces and surveilling the region with manned and unmanned aircraft. Thus far, it's not clear what could result from the assessments provided by the military personnel deployed to Iraq earlier this summer by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and others.
"The conversations inside the interagency continue on the Iraq assessment," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Tuesday. "Conversations continue about what the assessments say, and conversations continue about potential options moving forward, but no formal recommendations have been proffered or proposed or set forth, and certainly no decisions have been made," Kirby said.
By dispatching those advisors, the Pentagon created an expectation that the Obama administration was prepared to provide tangible assistance to Iraq.
Since then, however, the administration has sought to manage those expectations, suggesting that Obama ultimately might do little or nothing in Iraq. However, the humanitarian crisis rapidly unfolding there is a dramatic new factor -- and maybe one the White House can't ignore.
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