WASHINGTON - The Obama administration signaled its reluctance Wednesday to launch air strikes in Iraq, telling Congress that a bombing campaign would be fraught with complications and that Iraq's political divisions needed to be addressed first.
Senior lawmakers who met with President Obama gave no indication afterward that military action was imminent. They said Obama told them he was still reviewing his options but that he was primarily considering ways to bolster help for Iraq's beleaguered security forces.
At the same time, some lawmakers said, Obama told them he would not seek Congress' formal approval should he decide that military force is necessary - a sore point for some. He "indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps he might take," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
In a statement, the White House said that Obama "pledged to continue consulting closely with Congress" but did not specify on what legal basis he might act if he did order the use of military force.
Earlier Wednesday, the Pentagon's top leaders warned of the political and military risks of launching another bombing campaign.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraq's Shiite-dominated government had requested that Washington provide "air power" as it tries to take back territory seized in recent weeks by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other insurgents.
Dempsey told a panel from the Senate Appropriations Committee that pinpointing targets in an air campaign would be difficult, especially because Sunni insurgents have melted into the local population.
The broader problem, he added, was that the government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had worsened Iraq's sectarian divisions.
Some GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to act more decisively, warning of Iraq's becoming dominated by al-Qaeda allies.
"I want the American people to understand: There's a lot at stake for us," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).
Another influential military figure, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, also urged caution Wednesday. Petraeus, who oversaw the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and later became director of the CIA, said the U.S. should not rush to support Maliki militarily unless his government can gain the confidence of Sunnis and other religious and ethnic groups.
"President Obama has been quite clear on this," Petraeus said at a foreign-policy conference in London. "This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias or a Shia-on-Sunni Arab fight."