President Barack Obama said Friday he is weighing a range of options for countering the violent Islamic insurgency in Iraq, but he warned government leaders in Baghdad the U.S. will not take military action unless they move to address deep political troubles.
"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House.
The president did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq. The last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 after more than eight years of war.
Obama argued that the insurgency is not only a danger to the Iraqi people but also to American interests in a volatile region.
Administration officials said Obama is considering airstrikes using drones or manned aircraft. Other short-term options include an increase in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts. The U.S. also is likely to increase various forms of aid to Iraq, including funding, training and providing both lethal and non-lethal equipment.
The U.S., which routinely has an array of ships in the region, has the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and an accompanying Navy cruiser in the northern Arabian Sea, while two Navy destroyers from the Bush strike group have moved into the Persian Gulf.
The ships carry Tomahawk missiles, which could reach Iraq, and the Bush is carrying fighter jets that could also easily get to Iraq.
Obama suggested it could take several days before the administration finalizes its response to the situation on the ground in Iraq.
"We want to make sure we have gathered all the intelligence that is necessary so that if in fact I do direct and order any actions there that they are targeted, they're precise and they're going to have an effect," Obama said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Dakota and California.
Officials said the president had no plans to cut his trip short.
The al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has quickly overrun Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases — often meeting little resistance from state security forces. The militants have vowed to press on to Baghdad.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal. It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Obama argued that the insurgency is not only a danger to the Iraqi people, but also to American interests in a volatile region. He also cited America's long investment in Iraq as a rationale for stepping in to help the country from crumbling.
Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling in London Friday, urged Iraq's neighbors to also understand the gravity of the situation.
"Everybody in the region, every country that understands the importance of stability in the Middle East, needs to be concerned about what is happening with ISIL in Iraq today," Kerry said.
The Pentagon has been pulling together a broad range of military options that could be taken in Iraq, and is having discussions with the White House about the best way forward.
One of the immediate moves could be to position small teams of military troops and aircraft close by in case they are needed to evacuate U.S. personnel or to provide security if required.
More aggressive options include airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations against the insurgency, in conjunction with or with the approval of the Iraqi government.
Republican Mitt Romney criticized the president's handling of foreign policy, telling financial backers at his annual conference Friday that everything the nation fought for during the lengthy Iraq war could vanish.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee said at the start of his annual ideas summit at a luxurious Utah resort that the foreign policy agenda pushed by Obama, his former rival, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a "monumental bust."
"Tragically, all we've fought for in Iraq, all that 4,500 American lives were shed to gain, is on the cusp, potentially, of vanishing," Romney said.
Romney added his voice to a number of Republicans who have accused Obama of being slow to respond in Iraqfollowing the capture of two cities by an al-Qaida inspired militant group and concerns it could push toward Baghdad. He spoke shortly before Obama told reporters from the South Lawn that he was weighing a range of options to halt the violent Islamic insurgency.
Meanwhile, the U.N's human rights chief is expressing "extreme alarm" at reprisal killings, citing reports of hundreds of dead and wounded. She says her office is hearing about "summary executions" — and that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi army soldiers as well as 17 civilians on a single street in Mosul.
Neighboring Iran is signaling its willingness to confront the growing threat. Iran's official news agency says that country's powerful Revolutionary Guard is ready to fight in Iraq against the militant group.
Iran has built close political and economic ties with postwar Iraq.
AP Intelligence Writer Ken Dilanian in Washington and AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes in London contributed to this report. AP reporters Michelle L. Price and Ken Thomas also contributed.
This story has been updated.