President Obama said Monday that Iraqi and Kurdish forces, aided by U.S. airstrikes, had made “important progress” against Islamic State fighters, including recapturing a strategic dam and reversing militant advances toward the Kurdish capital, Irbil.
Although those successes appeared to fulfill the immediate security goals he set in authorizing airstrikes 11 days ago, however, Obama left the door open for further U.S. action.
“The United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized — protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Irbil and Baghdad, and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar,” he said.
In northern Iraq, fighting continued Monday on the western bank of the lake at the head of the Mosul Dam, and government troops were unable to enter the facility because retreating militants had booby-trapped it, officials said.
At Badriya, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region on the northernmost edge of the battlefield, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the dam.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials said that Islamic State was on the run after the weekend offensive. “Our soldiers are now relaxing, swimming in the lake,” said Brig. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saidi, commander of Iraqi special forces.
The U.S. Central Command said its forces have carried out 68 airstrikes since Aug. 8 with a mix of fighter jets, bombers and drones. More than half, 35, took place over the past three days in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces that on Monday retook the dam, near the Turkish border.
Earlier strikes targeted Islamic State forces that were pushing toward Irbil and that had surrounded members of the minority Yazidi sect on a mountaintop near the northern town of Sinjar. Separate militant advances toward Baghdad have been stalemated for weeks about 60 miles short of the Iraqi capital.
“The threat against which airstrikes were authorized still exists,” a senior defense official said. “It’s too soon to say” that there will be no more strikes as part of humanitarian missions or to protect U.S. personnel, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to expand on the president’s remarks.
“These guys have achieved all these things,” the official said of the joint Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. operation, “but ISIL is not done.” The Islamic State is also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Although some U.S. military personnel who were deployed to Iraq last week for a possible rescue mission on Mount Sinjar have been withdrawn, the Pentagon said that 749 troops remain, distributed among joint operations centers with the Iraqis in Irbil and Baghdad, and protecting the U.S. Embassy as well as the airport in Baghdad.
Those numbers do not include about 100 military personnel who previously had been assigned to the embassy office of security cooperation, and the protection of an estimated several hundred Americans at the embassy and a consulate in Irbil.
Obama interrupted his two-week family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to return to Washington for a meeting with his top national security aides on Monday morning. He held an afternoon meeting with domestic policy advisers on the crisis in Ferguson, Mo.
Iraq has taken major steps toward the formation of a new, more inclusive government with the naming of Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to replace Nouri al-Malaki, Obama said, “but we’re not there yet.”
“I told my national security team today, and I will say publicly, that we want to continue to communicate to politicians of all stripes in Iraq: Don’t think that because we have engaged in airstrikes to protect our people that now’s the time to let the foot off the gas and return to the same kind of dysfunction that has so weakened the country generally,” he said.
Abadi has said he expects to form a government within the next 15 days.
“When we see a credible Iraqi government,” Obama said, “we are then in a position to engage in planning” for the future. Working with Iraq and partners in the region and beyond, he said, “we can craft the kind of joint counterterrorism strategy” that will ultimately defeat the militants.
Asked whether he is worried about an expanding U.S. military mission, Obama said that “if we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less. Typically, what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all by ourselves. . . . But it’s not sustainable. It’s not lasting.”
“I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to engage in combat,” he said. “We’re not the Iraqi military, we’re not even the Iraqi air force. I am the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and Iraq is going to have to ultimately provide for its own security.
“On the other hand,” Obama said, the United States has a national security interest in containing the Islamic State, “because, ultimately, it can pose a threat to us.”
He said he was encouraged by what appeared to be the first operational cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, in retaking the dam. If they continue to work together, “they will have the strong support of the United States of America,” he said.
The ground offensive to reclaim the dam, which was captured Aug. 7 in an Islamic State swoop against a wide swath of Kurdish-controlled territory, was aided by an additional 15 U.S. airstrikes Monday. Government forces moved rapidly toward the facility and routed militant fighters in villages around it, but booby traps and mines slowed their advance.
Some Islamic State fighters also were holding out at a separate dam facility on the western edge of the structure called the Industrial Dam, said Farhad Atrushi, the governor of Kurdistan’s Dahuk province. The facility is high and gives the defenders an advantage against the attacking forces, he said.
The rest of the dam is under government control, however, the governor said. There also has been some scattered resistance from the militants in the town of Tal Kayf, about 25 miles southeast of the dam. Kurdish forces have entered the town, but groups of fighters are still circulating in the area.
However, he said, “there is almost no resistance. They are running away.”
A pesh merga fighter at Badriya expressed awe for the booby traps they had left behind.
“They are the smartest terrorists I have ever seen,” said Alan Ali Mustafa, pointing to a street lamp, a berm and an oil drum as examples of places bombs had been found.
No Kurdish troops have been killed, but some fighters have been injured by roadside bombs, Kurdish officials said.
Sly reported from Badriya. Loveday Morris in Baghdad and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.