WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD – President Barack Obama’s new military strategy in Iraq amounts to trying to contain, not destroy, the Islamic militant group that now controls much of the country’s north. That leaves open the questions of how deeply the U.S. will be drawn into the sectarian conflict, and whether airstrikes alone can stop the militants’ momentum.
Obama insists he will not send American ground troops back to Iraq after having withdrawn them in 2011, fulfilling a campaign promise. Still, even the limited airstrikes show the president’s conviction that the U.S. military cannot remain dormant after fighting an eight-year war that temporarily neutralized Sunni extremists but failed to produce lasting peace.
U.S. warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on Iraq’s Kurdish capital on Friday after Obama said Washington must act to prevent genocide.
Fighters from the Islamic State group, who have beheaded and crucified captives in their drive to eradicate unbelievers, have advanced to within half an hour’s drive of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region and a hub for U.S. oil companies.
They have also seized control of Iraq’s biggest dam, Kurdish authorities confirmed on Friday, which could allow them to flood cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies.
The Pentagon said two F/A-18 aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf had dropped laser-guided 500-pound bombs on the fighters’ artillery, and other airstrikes had targeted mortar positions and an Islamic State convoy.
Obama authorized the first U.S. airstrikes in Iraq since he pulled all troops out in 2011, arguing that action was needed to halt the Islamist advance, protect Americans and safeguard hundreds of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who have fled for their lives. Additional airdrops and targeted strikes are thought likely.
The United States also dropped relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect, tens of thousands of whom are massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help,’” said Obama on Thursday in a late-night television address to the nation. “Well, today America is coming to help.” He added, “We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
On Friday, the White House said the strikes would last as long as the security situation required.
The U.S. Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar, home of the Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism.
The Islamic State considers them to be “devil worshippers.” After fighters ordered them to leave, convert or die, most fled their towns and villages to camp on Sinjar mountain, an arid peak where they believe Noah settled after the biblical flood.
“After we fled to the mountain, I returned one day to recover belongings and I saw the bodies of the elderly disabled men who had been shot dead by the Islamic State. They were too old to flee. I can’t forget that scene,” said Akram Edo, who escaped to Kurdish-held territory with seven children.
His brother Hameed Edo, still back on the mountain with five children, said water was running out and no aid had arrived for the civilians trapped in the wilderness.
Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi lawmaker in Baghdad, said: “We hear through the media there is American help, but there is nothing on the ground. … Please save us! SOS! Save us! Our people are in the desert. They are exposed to a genocide.”
The next move may be up to the Islamic State, a group of extremists inspired by al-Qaida.
About three dozen U.S. military trainers and a U.S. consulate are in Irbil, where Kurdish forces are fighting off a militant advance.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the Islamic State, “They are well organized and they’re armed, and they are a significant threat to the stability of Iraq.”
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Islamic State must at least halt its advance on Irbil to prevent further strikes.
Iraq has been pleading for months, if not years, for additional U.S. military help to combat the extremists, but the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in part because it couldn’t reach an agreement with the government on legal immunity for U.S. troops. Harf said the Obama administration acted now out of concern that “there was a crisis that had the potential to get much worse.”
U.S. officials said the Islamic State extremists in recent days have shown military skill, including using artillery in sophisticated synchronization with other heavy weapons. Their force had overwhelmed not only Iraqi government troops but also the outgunned Kurdish militia.
The Obama administration insists the airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops are not the start of an open-ended campaign to defeat the militants.
The president’s critics say his approach is too narrow.
“A policy of containment will not work,” Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, said in a joint statement. They are among the chief critics of Obama’s foreign policy in general, beginning with his decision to stick to the 2011 timetable set by President George W. Bush for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Islamic militants are “inherently expansionist and must be stopped,” the senators said. “The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become.”
Beyond airstrikes, the administration has been asked to provide arms directly to the Kurdish forces defending Irbil. Until now, the U.S. has been willing to do that only through the central government in Baghdad, which has long feuded with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq’s north.
Michael Barbero, a retired general who ran the U.S. training mission in Iraq from 2009 to 2011, said Baghdad never delivered about $200 million worth of American weapons that were designated for the Kurds. Pentagon officials maintain they can provide arms only to the Iraqi government, although Harf said Friday the Kurdish forces play a critical role in the crisis.
“We understand their need for additional arms and equipment and are working to provide those as well so they are reinforced,” she said.
The CIA could supply the Kurds under a covert operation. An agency spokesman declined to comment when asked whether that was happening.
In announcing his decision to intervene militarily, Obama said he would not allow the U.S. “to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
The extremists control an impressive stretch of territory from the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo to most Sunni-dominated areas of northern and western Iraq, up to the edges of Baghdad.
They frequently launch bombings and other attacks in Baghdad, mostly targeting Shiites and government officials, often within sight and hearing of the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The State Department on Friday warned U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq and said those in the country are at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.
“I think the administration realizes that we’re dealing with that rarest of things in President Obama’s world, which is a military situation that has to be resolved militarily,” said James F. Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad when American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The basic problem, Jeffrey said, is “these guys have to be stopped. And it’s not a matter of whether the U.S. should stop them — it’s a matter of when.”
Across the Mideast, the U.S. has deployed considerable military power, including warplanes and an air operations center in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush currently is located in the Persian Gulf and was the launching site for Friday’s airstrikes.
The crisis appears to be falling to Washington to deal with — despite Obama’s consultations with other nations and the U.N. — as the U.S. struggles with the parallel challenge of Islamic extremists’ gains in neighboring Syria.
Vice President Joe Biden, in a call Friday to Iraqi President Fuad Masum, emphasized the threat the extremists present to all Iraqis and affirmed U.S. support, the White House said.