In the strongest sign yet of U.S. doubts about Iraq's stability, the Obama administration is weighing whether to press the Shiite prime minister in Baghdad to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a full-scale civil war.
President Barack Obama is also expected to announce Thursday that he is deploying about 100 Green Berets to Iraq to help train and advise Iraqi forces, according to a U.S. official. However, Obama does not plan to announce immediate U.S. airstrikes on Iraq, which have increasingly become less of a focus of deliberations in recent days.
Obama planned to speak about the crumbling situation in Iraq from the White House Thursday afternoon.
Prior to his statement, the president was meeting with his national security team to discuss how strongly to press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to undertake reforms and make his government more inclusive. Top U.S. officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns about al-Maliki may offer the best opportunity to stave off another deadly round of sectarian fighting of the kind that engulfed Iraq less than a decade ago.
Obama was not expected to publicly call for al-Maliki to resign and was instead likely to say that Iraqis must make their own political decisions. U.S. officials said there was concern within the administration that pushing al-Maliki too hard might stiffen his resolve to stay in office and drive him closer to Iran, which is seeking to keep the Shiite leader in power.
However the administration does want to see evidence of a leadership transition plan being put in place in Iraq.
All of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations by name.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Iraqi leader Wednesday and emphasized a need for him to govern in an inclusive manner. Biden also spoke to Iraq's Sunni parliamentary speaker and the president of Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region.
Al-Maliki, who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive, went on a diplomatic offensive Wednesday, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation's disaffected Sunnis and Kurds. His conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a "lesson," came as almost all of Iraq's main communities have been drawn into violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the situation in Iraq is about more than al-Maliki.
"Nothing that the president decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki," Kerry said in an interview with NBC that aired Thursday. "It is focused on the people of Iraq -- Shia, Sunni, Kurd."
The U.S. withdrew the last American troops from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. The withdrawal came after Washington and Baghdad were unable to reach an agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence.
But faced with a growing Sunni insurgency, Iraq's government has asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes to contain a militant group that seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country's military melted away.
Obama's decision-making on airstrikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies.
Beyond airstrikes, the White House has been considering plans to boost Iraq's intelligence about the militants. Officials have said that additional U.S. forces that could be brought into Iraq to train local security forces could also assist in identifying possible targets for strikes.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi voiced concern about Obama dispatching even a small contingent of Americans to Iraq.
"I think that you have to be careful sending special forces because that's a number that has a tendency to grow. And so I'd like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for anything like that," Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.
Separately, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he couldn't tell if limited airstrikes would be effective until more was known about overall U.S. strategy.
He said Obama must craft a strategy for combating terrorism in the entire Middle East, not just Iraq. He declared, "This is a very serious problem, very serious."
Boehner and Pelosi were among the congressional leaders who met with Obama on Iraq Wednesday. The leaders said the president told him they do not believe he needs authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.