WASHINGTON -- President Obama outlined the scope of jihadist violence in Iraq while meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday, as he and aides ponder possible responses that range from air strikes to increased training of Iraqi forces.
As an insurgent army marches toward Baghdad, Obama "reviewed our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Iraq's security forces to confront the threat," said a White House statement on the meeting.
They include "options for increased security assistance," the White House said.
Obama told Democratic and Republican congressional leaders that the administration is "urging Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian agendas and to come together with a sense of national unity."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that Obama informed lawmakers that "he didn't feel he had any need for (congressional) authority from us for steps he might take, and indicated he would keep us posted."
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about a private meeting, disputed McConnell's statement about congressional authority, saying Obama told lawmakers that he and his staff "will continue to consult with Congress on next steps."
Among the administration's options: air strikes against the insurgent army that is threatening Baghdad, and possible deployment of special forces to train an Iraq army that is struggling to defend its homeland.
Special forces could also assist with intelligence gathering, looking for potential targets.
White House officials reiterated that Obama does not plan to re-insert combat troops into Iraq.
McConnell also said that "Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force without successfully negotiating a remaining U.S. presence capable of preserving our gains and mentoring our partners."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's meeting is part of an ongoing "process of consultation" with lawmakers, and he indicated that the president has not made any final decisions.
While declining to discuss specifics, Carney said that "the only thing the president has ruled out is sending troops back into combat in Iraq. But he continues to consider other options."
Administration officials will conduct closed-door briefings on Iraq with senators on the Foreign Relations and the Armed Services committees on Thursday.
Obama's meeting with congressional leaders came as Iraq's government again made a formal request for U.S. air strikes against insurgents who have already taken major Iraqi cities.
Iraq's army claimed Wednesday it had repelled an attack on the nation's largest oil refinery and killed 40 militants while the nation's prime minister provided an upbeat assessment on government gains in a nationally televised address to the war-weary nation.
Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi announced that government forces had retaken control of the Beiji refinery shortly after Reuters, citing unnamed security sources and refinery employees, reported that the refinery may largely be controlled by insurgents.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured the nation that his government has regained the initiative after the "shock" defeat of army and security forces in the country's north.
"We were able to contain the strike and arrest deterioration ... We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back," al-Maliki said
Back in Washington, the Obama administration is also assessing a diplomatic strategy that includes demands for reform within Iraq's government. A regional diplomatic approach to Iraq could involve talks with the government in neighboring Iran.
Before the meeting at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "I do not support in any way putting our men and women in the midst of this civil war in Iraq. After a decade of war, the American people have had enough."
Reid and McConnell attended the meeting with Obama that also included House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Obama has notified Congress that he is deploying up to 275 members of the armed forces to provide security at the U.S. embassy and other American interests in Iraq.
Militants in the movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have seized Mosul, Tikrit and other cities in Iraq, as well as large swaths of neighboring Syria.
It is now threatening the capital in Baghdad.