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Obama weighing options to aid Iraq

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama will meet with the four top congressional leaders today on U.S. options in Iraq as he ponders whether to launch airstrikes against Islamic militants.

Obama will discuss foreign policy with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi at the White House.

The president informed congressional leaders Monday under the War Powers Act that he will deploy as many as 275 U.S. troops to Iraq to protect the American embassy and staff in Baghdad, Iraq's capital. The troops, who are equipped for combat, will remain available until security improves, according to the White House. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will remain open, although its staff has been reduced.

In weighing airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq, Obama is considering an option that could prove as inconclusive and chaotic as the war the United States thought had ended there in 2011.

For all the available firepower of U.S. planes and missiles, airstrikes risk civilian casualties and may not be enough to defeat an irregular enemy moving through densely populated areas, defense analysts and administration officials said.

"One needs to be very careful about the downsides," said Eric Edelman, a former Pentagon undersecretary for policy in President George W. Bush's administration. Effective airstrikes "require some kind of U.S. presence on the ground" to discern militant targets from civilians.

Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into the Iraq fighting.

The U.S. has an array of manned and unmanned aircraft in the region. The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, now in the Persian Gulf, has 65 aircraft on board, including 44 F/A-18 fighter-bombers and five EA-6B Prowler electronic jamming aircraft, according to Navy figures.

The carrier is accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Truxton. Both are probably equipped with the latest-model Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are capable of flying to a target, then circling in patterns so they can be retargeted against militants on the move.

The U.S. Air Force has assets at bases in Qatar, Kuwait and other locations, including armed Reaper drones and 90 manned warplanes. The available aircraft include stealthy F-22 fighters, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, F-16 and F-15E fighter-bombers, and B-1B bombers all capable of dropping satellite- or laser-guided bombs.

The Sunni regimes in the Persian Gulf have signaled their reluctance to let U.S. warplanes use bases on their soil to attack fellow Sunnis, even the extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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