(Reuters) – President Barack Obama came under pressure from U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of an insurgency threatening his country.

As Obama held an hour-long meeting with congressional leaders on U.S. options in Iraq, administration officials joined a chorus of criticism of Maliki, faulting him for failing to heal sectarian rifts that militants have exploited.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government had asked for U.S. air power to help counter Sunni militants who have overrun northern Iraq.

The general did not say whether Washington would meet the request. But Dempsey signaled that the U.S. military – apparently much like Obama – was in no rush to launch airstrikes in Iraq, citing the need to clarify a chaotic situation on the ground so any targets could be selected “responsibly.”

In Oval Office talks, Obama briefed the lawmakers on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to “set aside sectarian agendas,” reviewed options for “increased security assistance” and sought their views, the White House said.

A senior administration official said afterward that Obama did not lay out a course of action at the meeting and had yet to make a final decision.

At the same time, the Obama administration has quietly started consulting Congress about a plan for redirecting some current intelligence funding to help finance expanded U.S. operations in Iraq, a U.S. national security source said.

The United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein and withdrew its troops in 2011, has said Iraq’s government must take steps toward sectarian reconciliation before Obama will decide on any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an al Qaeda splinter group.

Maliki has so far shown little willingness to create a more inclusive administration.

“The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” said U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee… see more

source: reuters