The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is ruling out airstrikes in Iraq unless the country's religious and ethnic groups join together in a formal request for US military support.
The comments from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., come as the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked the United States to bomb the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as they make their way south toward the capital, Baghdad. Some Republicans are urging the administration to act now, but the White House and many lawmakers of both parties are worried about getting sucked into a sectarian conflict if Maliki does not mend fences with Sunnis and other groups.
"In particular, and this is really my key point, we should only act if leaders of all elements of Iraqi society — Shia, Sunni, Kurds and religious minorities, and also leaders of some of the clans and some of the tribes — only if all of them act in this way together," Levin told reporters on Capitol Hill. "And that is, that they join in a formal request for additional military support."
Levin described the Sunni ISIS militants as a "vicious enemy, a common enemy" that is a "threat to all of the groups in Iraq." If Iraq cannot unite against them, he said, the country is "likely" to end up splintering into sectarian enclaves.
"At that point, there's nothing we can do to help them overcome those kinds of divisions which they have so deep in their society," Levin said.
Levin made the remarks at an unusually scheduled press conference on a day when the Senate is out of session. While insisting that he "supports" President Barack Obama's plan to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq, the chairman set forth clear conditions for any airstrikes, including evidence that they will change the momentum on the ground and avoid civilian casualties "without dragging us further into the conflict."
Levin said that regional US allies, "particularly moderate Arab leaders of neighboring countries," would need to offer "clear public support" for US military action. Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Middle East and Europe this weekend to try to build an international coalition "to support stability in Iraq," Obama announced Thursday.
"I don't want to use this as a way to try to persuade the administration to do something that, frankly, I think they're on their way to doing anyway in Syria," Levin said in answer to a question from Al-Monitor. "I think we've got to focus on — and I know the administration is focused on — what the proper next steps in Iraq are. And there are impacts on Syria, relationships with Syria, but I think the key issue here in Iraq is the issue of the political leadership in Iraq. And that's what the focus has got to be on."
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