IRBIL, Iraq — As fighting continued in Iraq on Saturday, President Barack Obama said from the White House that the United States has been successful in destroying arms and equipment in Iraq through a series of targeted airstrikes.
“We have to make sure ISIL (Islamic militants) are not engaging in actions that could cripple a country permanently, he said.
But Obama said he did not know how long the military mission he ordered Thursday would last, saying that depends on the Iraqi government efforts.
“I'm not going to give a particular timetable,” he said. “I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks. It's going to take some months...This is going to be a long-term project.”
“We're going to push hard for Iraqis to get their government together,” he said.
Obama ordered on Thursday targeted airstrikes and food and water drops to help one of Iraq’s oldest minorities, the Yazidis, stranded without food or water on a mountaintop where temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and with militant jihadists below, reportedly bent on giving them a choice of religious conversion or death.
The United States had made two air drops by early Saturday, and British Prime Minister David Cameron committed his nation to helping with the humanitarian aid.
“We feel confident we can prevent (Islamic militants) from going up the mountain and slaughtering people who are there,” Obama said.
Cameron tweeted Saturday that he had been speaking with Obama. “I told him I welcome US efforts in Iraq and that the UK will join in delivering aid through air drops,” Cameron wrote in his tweet.
U.S. military forces are “"positioned to strike...terrorists around the mountain” to help Iraqi forces. The next step, Obama said, "is how do we give safe passage?"
Obama was elected largely on the promise that he would extricate the United States from its two long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a promise he then took to a further extreme by refusing to get militarily involved to any significant degree in the Syrian civil war despite tremendous outside pressure.
But the rapid advance by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq against Kurdish positions in the wake of June’s collapse of the Iraqi Army and most of central and northern Iraq to the radicals suddenly changed the equation.
West of the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul, the takeover of Sinjar, a city heavily populated by the ancient Persian Yazidi sect considered heretics by the Islamic State, sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing last week into a barren mountain range, where harsh heat and a lack of food and water have pushed the situation into a humanitarian catastrophe shadowed by the threat of an even larger massacre by the Islamic State.
At the same time, another offensive by the Islamic State against forces protecting the Kurdish capital of Irbil captured not only Iraq’s largest dam and hydro electric plant, but also took over four of Iraq’s largest Christian villages. That drove a wave of refugees into a Kurdish region already hosting tens of thousands of refugees from the June collapse of the Arab sections of Iraq. And as Islamic State forces closed to within 25 miles of Irbil, the United States said it was forced to act with both air strikes to protect the capital and a humanitarian airlift to help alleviate the Yazidi suffering.
“American forces have conducted targeted airstrikes against terrorist forces outside the city of Irbil to prevent them from advancing on the city and to protect our American diplomats and military personnel,” Obama said Saturday. “Meanwhile, Kurdish forces on the ground continue to defend the city, and the United States and the Iraqi government have stepped up our military assistance to Kurdish forces as they wage their fight.”
The president also said the U.S. military forces were likely to expand their operations to not only supply humanitarian supplies to the Sinjar refugees, but would militarily assist in helping break the siege on the area itself.
“Our humanitarian effort continues to help the men, women and children stranded on Mount Sinjar,” he said. “American forces have so far conducted two successful airdrops _ delivering thousands of meals and gallons of water to these desperate men, women and children. And American aircraft are positioned to strike (Islamic State) terrorists around the mountain to help forces in Iraq break the siege and rescue those who are trapped there.”
In part the president defended this new policy of intervention in an interview with the New York Times, praising the Kurds. “The Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see,” he said in the interview. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that that space is protected.”
Charles Lister, an analyst for the Brookings Doha Center, says this support also takes measure of the government of the Kurdish autonomous region’s inherent competence compared with the floundering government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
“Notwithstanding the fact that Iraq's Kurds have proven themselves more consistently reliable partners to the U.S. than the Maliki government has, the (Kurdish fighters) Peshmerga has also been a more effective opponent to the (Islamic State),” he said by email.
There is a major U.S. military facility and intelligence station on the outskirts of Irbil, where operations to contain the Islamic State advances are being coordinated. There also is an Irbil consulate that has taken over much of the diplomatic effort of the Baghdad Embassy as the Iraqi capital itself remains on the verge of chaos. So the United States has other, pragmatic reasons for helping the Kurds protect their capital, according to another Iraq security analyst.
“It is an area of calm in an otherwise turbulent region,” said John Drake of the United Kingdom-based AKE Group, a security firm. “For parts of it to fall would send major shock waves through the region and prompt an even greater humanitarian crisis, much bigger than the fall of Mosul.”
And with the presence of the military and intelligence assets along with a large number of major oil companies from the United States and Europe working to develop the Kurdish region’s energy assets, Drake said it became unreasonably dangerous for the administration – which has vowed to never let a situation like the burning and looting of the American consulate in Bengazi, Libya, in 2012 happen again – to allow the city to fall.
“There are also numerous foreign personnel in the area,” Drake said. “If the United States didn't intervene militarily it probably would have been drawn into a difficult, panicked, costly and embarrassing evacuation operation. ... It would be a logistical nightmare.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.