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President proposes fresh help for beleaguered Iraq

BY JULIE PACE AND LARA JAKESAssociated Press

WASHINGTON - Less than three years after pulling American forces out of Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes, to quell an al-Qaida inspired insurgency that has captured two Iraqi cities and threatened to press toward Baghdad.

"We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold," Obama said Thursday in the Oval Office.

However, officials firmly ruled out putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq, which has faced resurgent violence since the U.S. military withdrew in late 2011. A sharp burst of violence this week led to the evacuation Thursday of Americans from a major air base in northern Iraq where the U.S. had been training security forces.

Obama, in his first comments on the deteriorating situation, said it was clear Iraq needed additional assistance from the U.S. and international community given the lightning gains by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Republican lawmakers pinned some of the blame for the escalating violence on Obama's reluctance to re-engage in a conflict he long opposed.

For more than a year, the Iraqi government has been pleading with the U.S. for additional help to combat the insurgency, which has been fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Northern Iraq has become a way station for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are spreading the Syrian war's violence.

Iraqi leaders made a fresh request earlier this week, asking for a mix of drones and manned aircraft that could be used for both surveillance and active missions. Officials said Obama was considering those requests and was expected to decide on a course of action within a few days.

The U.S. already is flying unmanned aircraft over Iraq for intelligence purposes, an official said.

Short of airstrikes, the president could step up the flow of military assistance to the beleaguered Iraqi government, increase training exercises for the country's security forces and help boost Iraq's intelligence capabilities. The U.S. has been leery of its lethal aid falling into the hands of militants or being otherwise misused.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is sending about $12 million in humanitarian aid to help nearly a million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by recent fighting.

Obama huddled with his national security team Thursday to discuss the deteriorating security situation. And Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to underscore that while the U.S. stands ready to help, it would be crucial for Iraq to come up with longer-term solutions to its internal political strife.

There were no calls for putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq.

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