WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States was considering how it might assist the government of Iraq in its fight against the Islamic extremists who seized much of the country this week, but only on the condition that Iraq's many feuding factions set aside their differences and commit to a national unity government.
But the demand for internal accommodation seemed likely to prove to be an impossibly high bar to jump, even under the dire circumstances now unfolding in Iraq. Not only did it seem unlikely that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would make concessions he has rejected since before U.S. troops departed at the end of 2011, but it was unclear who would be his partners.
Islamist insurgents from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appear to have the backing of a range of disaffected Sunni Muslims and are ill disposed to any negotiations. The country's Kurdish politicians, their forces now in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, are more likely to push for independence than for bolstering a government they detest.
Repeatedly, U.S. leaders Friday called the collapsing security situation a "wake-up call" for Iraqi politicians.
"Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force," Obama said in remarks delivered on the White House lawn before departing for North Dakota. "We can't do it for them."
Obama specifically ruled out ground forces, but he said he would decide in the next few days whether other forms of military action, such as an airstrike on advancing ISIS forces, were appropriate.
Pentagon officials said they were drafting plans for Obama's consideration, but there were many unknowns.
For one, U.S. military officials said they could not confirm whether Iranian forces were operating in Baghdad, reportedly under the command of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's feared Al Quds Force.
Military officials said they also don't yet know how many U.S.-supplied weapons ended up in ISIS' hands when Iraqi security forces abandoned their positions and fled.
"We have good eyes on the situation there," Obama said. "We want to make sure that we've gathered all the intelligence that's necessary so that if in fact I do direct an order, any actions there, that they're targeted, they're precise, and they're going to have an effect."
The most vexing question hanging over Obama's deliberations was whether the U.S. would aid Iraq with al-Maliki as its leader.
In his statement, Obama did not utter al-Maliki's name once, instead repeatedly talking about the need for wide-reaching reconciliation.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, however, later used the prime minister's name, noting that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who has led U.S. dialogue with Iraq during the Obama presidency, have "consistently urged all the political leaders in Iraq, including Prime Minister Maliki, to be more inclusive in terms of the political agenda that they pursue."
Earnest noted that the current situation "is characterized right now by a very urgent security threat," but that the problem of disagreement among political leaders "is every bit as important. And that underlying problem is not one that can be solved through military might; it's one that will require the cooperation of moderate leaders of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish."
The likely breakup of Iraq into feuding ethnic and sectarian bastions accelerated Friday as Iraq's senior Shiite Muslim cleric broke years of support for the central government and decreed that every able-bodied Shiite man had a religious obligation to defend the sect's holy sites from rebellious Sunni Muslims led by ISIS fighters.
In answer to the call, thousands of Shiites — many with militia experience from the sectarian war that pitted Sunnis against Shiites and killed thousands from 2006 to 2008 — flooded the cities of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala to receive weapons, enlist in organized units and receive their orders.
With Sunni Islamists in control of much of the north and west, Kurds expanding their control of the long-contested Kirkuk region and Shiites gathering for sectarian war, the likelihood of any accommodation seemed remote.
Emma Sky, a fellow at Yale University who advised U.S. forces in Iraq until 2010, called the events "the slow death" of the Iraqi state in an interview with McClatchy.
Perhaps most telling was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's religious endorsement of Shiite men taking up arms to defend "their homes, their cities and their holy places" from the Sunnis.
Previously, al-Sistani had rejected militia activities and urged support for the central government, even during the darkest days of the 2006-08 sectarian war.
A Shiite resident of Baghdad, who asked to be called Abu Zeinab, said his neighborhood near the Shiite Shrine of Khadam in the neighborhood of Khadamiya was filled with volunteers after al-Sistani's decree became known.
"The statement by the marja, Sistani," he said, using an Arabic term of respect that loosely means "object of emulation," "has changed everything now. It says we should fight as Shiites to protect Shiites. I think this means there is no Iraqi state now."
Iraqi state television showed dozens of vehicles filled with hundreds of men in Baghdad singing martial Shiite songs commemorating the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680, when the Sunni caliphate destroyed a Shiite uprising — an event that has played heavily in the rhetoric of both sides; in recent days, Islamic State of Iraq members have threatened to repeat that massacre.
"People are scared of the Wahhabi invaders," Abu Zeinab said, using a term common in Iraq to describe ISIS ideology that allows killing Muslims deemed insufficiently pious, particularly Shiites.
"All the boys from the neighborhood who were in militias during the American occupation have returned, and hundreds of youth from the (Shiite-dominated south) have come to fight. The government and the militias are handing out arms. I think there're Iranians here as well; there're always Iranians here at the shrine."
Other Baghdad residents reached by phone said a near-panic had set in among much of the population as rumors were spreading about an impending jihadist invasion of the city.
Rumors were rife that the government planned to block popular text-messaging and social media services in the city to try to contain the hysteria. There was no official announcement from the government, however.
With Islamic insurgents pushing toward Baghdad, the U.N.'s top human rights official expressed "extreme alarm" Friday at reports of war crimes.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in the fast-deteriorating Iraqi war zone.
In a first estimate of the number of killed and wounded in the area, her office said the number of killed may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.
Pillay also shed some light on the brutalities occurring in Iraq, saying her office had received reports of militants rounding up and killing Iraqi army soldiers and 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.
Her office said it also has learned of summary executions, rape, extrajudicial and reprisal killings, and about civilians being shelled, as fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired ISIS overran a succession of major cities earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, ISIS and its Sunni allies continued capturing ground in areas disputed between Sunni and Shiite religious factions while the Iraqi army appeared irrelevant to the conflict.
Iranian and Iraqi news organizations were filled with reports that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' al-Quds Force, the cross between an intelligence agency and special forces that often is deployed to pursue Iranian foreign and security policy, had arrived in Baghdad to direct the fight against ISIS after four days that saw the army crumble.
Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani was, according to numerous credible reports, said to be directing the defenses of Baghdad personally. Suleimani, a well-known figure in Middle East security circles, is said to control Iranian operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Supporters of Iran often credit him with devising the strategy that has salvaged the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad during the past year of civil war there.
A former European intelligence official, who runs a consultancy in the region and regularly deals with Iranian government representatives in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, said in an interview that he expected any Iranian troops sent to Iraq would augment what already was a robust covert presence.
Mitchell Prothero in Istanbul and Hannah Allam of the Bee Washington Bureau contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.