U.S. President Barack Obama said the fight against militants in Iraq, which included new attacks today, will be a “long-term project,” tying the prospects for success to whether the nation’s leaders quickly form an inclusive government.
The U.S. conducted five airstrikes against Islamic State militants today to defend Kurdish forces near Erbil, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. Fighter jets and armed drones destroyed several armed trucks and a mortar position held by militants, the statement said. The strikes followed four yesterday against Islamic State forces the U.S. said were attacking Yezidi civilians near Sinjar.
Obama yesterday offered no prediction for the duration of American airstrikes, while saying a government that unites Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions would allow “us to not just play defense, but also engage in some offense” against the al-Qaeda offshoot known as Islamic State.
“We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there’s not going to be an American military solution to this problem,” he told reporters yesterday on the White House lawn. “There’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support. And that can’t happen effectively until you have a legitimate Iraqi government.”
The advances by Islamic State fighters who have taken over much of northern Iraq have been “more rapid” than anticipated by intelligence officials and policy makers in the U.S. and Iraq, Obama said.
Obama said the U.S. will be prepared to do more against the Sunni Islamist insurgents -- short of returning American ground combat forces to Iraq -- if political leaders form a government that can draw support from Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurdish minority in the north.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama said in his most extensive comments on the U.S. position since authorizing airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops in Iraq on Aug. 6. “This is going to take some time.”
The U.S. envisions an inclusive government draining the Islamic State’s support from moderate Sunnis, who joined the insurgency out of anger at actions taken against them by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite allies.
“Once an inclusive government is in place, I’m confident it will be easier to mobilize all Iraqis” against the Islamic State fighters and to “mobilize greater support from our friends and allies,” Obama said.
The political environment needs to change in Iraq so that millions of Sunnis “feel connected to and well served by a national government,” he said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all Iraqi leaders to form a broad-based government acceptable to all components of Iraqi society and urged that “reason and wisdom” prevail, in an e-mailed statement from his spokesman.
U.S. aircraft hit Islamic State positions in multiple strikes Aug. 8 at the start of a sustained campaign to protect American personnel and prevent the massacre of ethnic and religious minorities.
Those forces will continue attacks to break a siege of thousands of civilians trapped by insurgents atop the barren Sinjar Mountain, Obama said. Most of those under attack are members of the Yezidi religious minority, who are facing the militants’ threats of death if they don’t convert to Islam.
The U.S. military carried out its third supply of food and water to civilians on the mountain, with three transport planes dropping about 3,800 gallons (14,400 liters) of drinking water and more than 16,000 pre-packaged food rations, according to a release yesterday from the Central Command.
Obama said the U.S. is considering how to “give safe passage for people down from the mountain and where can we ultimately relocate them so that they are safe.”
“That will be complicated logistically,” he said.
A Kurdish helicopter carrying aid was swarmed by hundreds of people desperate for water and food on the rocky, treeless mountain, according to a video released by Rudaw, a Kurdish news organization. The video showed the helicopter returning fire from Islamic State forces as it headed to the mountain.
Obama said he spoke yesterday with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande about the Iraq situation.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Baghdad today and will also travel to Erbil, Almada Press reported. The U.K. began air drops of humanitarian supplies overnight, including clean water and filtration devices.
“We can expect a continuing drumbeat of airdrop operations, working in coordination with the U.S. and potentially with others as well,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview broadcast yesterday.
He also said the U.K. will look at how to help get Yezidis off Sinjar Mountain.
Obama repeatedly stressed the need for an inclusive Iraqi government without mentioning Maliki, the top vote-getter in recent elections. The U.S. has been urging Iraqi political leaders to choose an alternative to him, while Maliki has sought to retain power.
Saying the current operation may take “some months,” Obama reiterated that he won’t commit U.S. ground forces to Iraq. He said he would stick to that “because we should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion in Iraq,” referring to that U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 under President George W. Bush.
“The nature of this problem is not one that the U.S. military can solve,” he said. “Our military obviously can play an extraordinarily important role in bolstering efforts of an Iraqi partner as they make the right steps to keep their country together. But we can’t do it for them.”
Obama ran for president in 2008 on ending the war in Iraq, and under his administration the last U.S. troops left the country in December 2011.
“The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq is because a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there,’” he said.
The U.S. and Maliki failed to reach a status of forces agreement providing American troops with immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Critics, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, have said that Obama didn’t press harder because he was intent on ending the U.S. military role there.
Islamic State, previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has declared its own self-styled caliphate in the territory it has seized, highlighting the central government’s inability to ensure security under Maliki.
After its breakthrough two months ago, when it routed the Iraqi army and seized the city of Mosul, the group has returned to the offensive last week, defeating Kurdish fighters and sparking a refugee crisis, especially among Yezidi communities near the Syrian border.
U.S. combat jets and drones bombed an artillery installation, mortar positions and a militant convoy in three separate missions near Erbil Aug. 8. The Kurdish regional capital is home to U.S. diplomatic staff and an operations center where American military personnel are advising Iraqi forces.
“All Iraqi communities are ultimately threatened by these barbaric terrorists,” Obama said as he prepared to leave for a two-week family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Obama authorized the strikes last week after pleas from Iraq’s central government and Kurdish leaders trying to blunt the advance of the Islamic State, which has terrorized religious minorities and used beheadings to intimidate the civilian population.
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