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Top Republican says Obama may take military action in Iraq without congressional authorization

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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and congressional leaders believe he does not need authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency sweeping through Iraq, the Senate's top Republican and congressional aides said after the president briefed senior lawmakers.

Still, the prospect of the president sidestepping Congress raises the potential for clashes between the White House and rank-and-file lawmakers, particularly if Obama should launch strikes with manned aircrafts or take other direct U.S. military action in Iraq. Administration officials have said airstrikes have become less a focus of recent deliberations but have also said the president could order such a step if intelligence agencies can identify clear targets on the ground.

Iraq's Sunni insurgents, which has seized vast territories across the country's north, have suddenly become a headache for Obama during a midterm election year, as Republicans hope to take control of the Senate in November. Republicans insist that Obama bears the blame for allowing the insurgency to strengthen because of his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a security agreement that would have allowed American forces to stay longer.

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside criticism of Obama administration Middle East policy, taking exception to assertions it has been too passive in the face of surging terrorism.

Asked about former Vice-President Dick Cheney's assertion that Obama has been wrong all along about the Mideast, Kerry replied, "This is a man who took us directly into Iraq. Please."

Kerry reiterated that airstrikes have not been ruled out, saying that "nothing is off the table" in administration discussions.

On Wednesday, Obama huddled for over an hour to discuss options for responding the crumbling security situation in Iraq with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

McConnell said the president "indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take."

An administration official said it was the leaders who suggested Obama already had existing authorities to take additional action in Iraq without further congressional authorization. The official downplayed the notion that Obama agreed with that assessment, saying only that the president said he would continue to consult with lawmakers.

The White House has publicly dodged questions about whether Obama might seek congressional approval if he decides to take military action. Last summer, Obama did seek approval for possible strikes against Syria, but he scrapped the effort when it became clear that lawmakers would not grant him the authority.

However, administration officials have suggested that the president may be able to act on his own in this case because Iraq's government has requested U.S. military assistance.

In addition, an authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, passed by Congress in 2002, is still on the books and could potentially be used as a rationale for the White House acting without additional approval. Before the outburst of violence in Iraq, Obama had called for that authorization to be repealed.

Some lawmakers were outraged when Obama launched military action in Libya in 2011 with minimal consultation with Congress and no formal authorization from lawmakers. More recently, some in Congress have complained that the White House did not consult on final plans for releasing five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for freeing detained American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

White House officials offered no timeline for how soon Obama might decide on how to respond to the fast-moving militants from ISIL, which has seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country's military melted away.

Obama's decision-making on airstrikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies, according to U.S. officials.

Officials also suggest that the U.S. could more easily identify targets on the ground if Obama would send in additional American trainers to work with Iraqi security forces. Obama is considering that possibility, the officials say, though he has ruled out sending troops for combat missions.

The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe classified details and private discussions by name.

Beyond airstrikes, the White House has been considering plans to boost Iraq's intelligence about the militants and, more broadly, has been encouraging the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to become more inclusive.

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Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ken Dilanian, Bradley Klapper and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Donna Cassata at http://twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP

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