In Washington, growing chorus calls for Iraq's Maliki to go
President Barack Obama came under pressure from US lawmakers today to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as his failed leadership in the face of an insurgency threatening his country.
As Obama held an hour-long meeting with congressional leaders on US options in Iraq, administration officials joined a chorus of criticism of Maliki, faulting him for failing to heal sectarian rifts that militants have exploited.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that Maliki's Shi'ite-led government had asked for US air power to help counter Sunni militants who have overrun northern Iraq.
The general did not say whether Washington would meet the request. But Dempsey signaled that the US military - apparently much like Obama - was in no rush to launch air strikes in Iraq, citing the need to clarify the situation on the ground so any possible targets could be selected "responsibly."
In Oval Office talks, Obama updated the lawmakers on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to "set aside sectarian agendas" for the sake of national unity, reviewed efforts to strengthen the Iraqi military and sought their views, the White House said. There was no immediate indication he had presented them with his decision on a US course of action.
"This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Shia," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the congressional hearing.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Maliki has not done enough "to govern inclusively and that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq."
But he stopped short of calling for Maliki - in power for eight years and the effective winner of a parliamentary election two months ago - to resign. Asked if Maliki should step down, Carney told reporters: "That's not, obviously, for us to decide."