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Airstrikes in Iraq unlikely absent new leader, officials say

By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
  • Resurgent Sunni extremists have swept across northern parts of Iraq
  • The U.S. has sent military advisers, but so far no air strikes
  • Critics blame the Shia-dominated government for worsening sectarian division
  • The Obama administration says Iraq must determine its own government

(CNN) -- The United States is unlikely to undertake any military strikes against resurgent extremists in Iraq before a new government is formed, American officials and Arab diplomats told CNN.

The Obama administration has been careful not to publicly, or even privately, demand Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down, insisting Iraqis must determine their own government.

But senior American officials and Arab diplomats said they see al-Maliki's ouster as inevitable, as his inability to gain enough votes will eventually prompt his Shia-led party to put up another candidate acceptable to Sunnis and Kurds.

Kerry to Iraq: 'Words are cheap'

Critics blame al-Maliki and his Shia-dominated government for the worsening sectarian division in Iraq three years after U.S. troops departed the country following years of war.

A lack of good intelligence on targets has also slowed any effort to carry out airstrikes against the Sunni-led Islamic State of Syria and Iraq extremist group that has swept across parts of northern Iraq seeking to create an Islamic caliphate.

The officials said the arrival of U.S. military advisers on the ground should provide a better intelligence as well as an assessment of Iraqi forces and their ability to fight ISIS.

According to U.S. estimates, ISIS may have as many as 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, but it's not clear where those forces all are.

Some Iraqi soldiers melted away in the face of ISIS fighters across northern Iraq earlier this month.

Several U.S. military officials have said it would be difficult to demonstrate the ability of airstrikes to fundamentally diminish the strength of ISIS without significant targets to hit.

"We would have to show what goal an airstrike can actually accomplish," a military official said.

Key scenarios

Nonetheless, U.S. officials told CNN there are three scenarios that could potentially result in airstrikes: if military advisers came under sustained attack; if ISIS tried to attack Baghdad or the Jordanian border, or if ISIS forces and weapons massed in large numbers on the Syrian border headed into Iraq.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama is "always prepared to act under any circumstance. He reserves the right to use force if he has to."

Absent urgent scenarios, the Obama administration believes launching airstrikes in the current political climate would aggravate sectarian tensions because it would be viewed as support for al-Maliki and Iraq's majority Shia over the country's disaffected Sunnis.

"It's not a quid pro quo, but we are not going to do this in a vacuum," one senior administration official told CNN. "The government formation is incredibly important to our calculus and our response will be calibrated accordingly."

The officials and diplomats described an emergence of an international strategy. It would involve a new government without al-Maliki, military strikes against ISIS targets, and Arab outreach to Iraq's Sunnis to support the new regime and unite the country against extremists. This approach would be choreographed simultaneously.

"The primary effort is to get the government to form so that you have something backing up what you're doing," Kerry said. "And if you can reconstitute that government, then you have a strategy that you can begin to implement where a strike might be more successful; you may be able to accomplish more. You can actually have a holistic approach to the solution."

Kerry on the move

Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan in Paris on Thursday and will travel Friday to meet with Saudi King Abdullah to discuss the U.S. strategy.

Diplomats said Arab leaders have told the administration they are prepared to support a political process in Iraq by reaching out to Sunnis and tribal leaders once they are satisfied a new, more inclusive government begins to emerge.

"We're not sure Maliki will go tomorrow, but we need to see a roadmap for his exit," an Arab diplomat told CNN.

Diplomats said the region would be amenable to a "secular" Shia to form a new government who can emerge as a consensus candidate.

Former Prime minister Awad Allawi's name was cited as the type of person Sunni nations have supported in the past, although none of the diplomats said he should lead Iraq.

"It's not for us to decide," another Arab diplomat said. "The Iraqi blocs all have a lot of candidates and there will be a lot of horse trading in the coming days."

While acknowledging Arab concerns about al-Maliki's rule, U.S. officials are careful to note that his ouster alone will not solve Iraq's problems or end the terrorist threat facing the region.

"The political dynamic is important but the regional players need to get unified against ISIL," one senior U.S. official said. "Once the new government forms, what happens after that will be just as important."

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