U.S. jets and armed drones conducted four more airstrikes against Islamic State positions in northern Iraq on Saturday as President Obama said the American air campaign would not expand beyond the limited objectives he has outlined.
All of the air attacks took place in the area of Sinjar, in the northwest part of the country, where militants have surrounded and threatened to kill as many as 40,000 members of the minority Yazidi sect. The U.S. Central Command said that the strikes, which took place in the late morning and midafternoon Eastern time, had destroyed several armored personnel carriers and armed trucks. “All aircraft safely exited the area,” it said.
The ongoing strikes, which began Friday, address “immediate” concerns of protecting Americans, besieged minorities and critical infrastructure in the north, Obama said. But comprehensive aid to push back advances by the Sunni Muslim extremists through much of the country over the past two months will require a new Iraqi government, he said.
Formation of that government, already delayed beyond a constitutional deadline after elections in the spring, fell further behind as a parliamentary vote scheduled for Sunday was postponed for a day amid internal wrangling among Shiite politicians.
Obama’s remarks put in sharp relief his decision in the past week to use airstrikes to keep Iraq from disintegrating and prevent “genocide” against minorities, while maintaining enough leverage to press for an inclusive government that he is convinced is the country’s only long-term salvation.
The administration is pushing for Iraq’s majority Shiites to choose a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian governance has led many Iraqi Sunnis to tolerate, and sometimes support, the Sunni Muslim extremists of the Islamic State.
Asked how long the airstrikes would continue, Obama said that “the most important timetable that I’m focused on right now is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalized.”
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said on the White House South Lawn before departing for a two-week vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. “I think this is going to take some time.”
“What we don’t have yet is a prime minister and a cabinet that can . . . start reaching out to all the various groups and factions inside Iraq and give confidence to populations in the Sunni areas” that the militants are “not the only game in town,” he said.
“In order to ensure that Sunni populations reject outright these kinds of incursions,” Obama added, “they’ve got to feel like they’re invested in a broader national government. And right now, they don’t feel that.”
In a letter sent to Congress late Friday, Obama said U.S. military operations would be “limited in their scope and duration as necessary to protect American personnel” and to help Iraqi forces aid and rescue besieged minorities.
Saturday evening, the Central Command announced it had made a third airdrop of food and water to the stranded Yazidis.
Despite a growing chorus of voices against Maliki, including Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and many within Maliki’s own party, he has refused to step aside. Former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is being floated as a consensus candidate, but there is no sign of an agreement.
Tariq Najim, a senior member of Maliki’s party, is also considered a front-runner.
As Maliki’s backers rallied in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on Saturday to support a third term for him, Hunain al-Qaddo, a parliamentarian with Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, criticized Washington for linking more comprehensive intervention to the prime minister’s exit.
“We shouldn’t tie acting in the interests of the Iraqi people to questions over one person,” he said. Qaddo also criticized the United States for withholding airstrikes until the Kurdish semi-
autonomous region came under threat in the past week.
“Just focusing this effort on areas around Kurdistan sends a message that the Americans are adopting double standards,” he said.
The administration also believes that a new Iraqi prime minister could encourage Sunni Arab states in the region to assist in rallying Sunni Iraqis to fight against the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia and other powerful neighbors have made no secret of their dislike for Maliki and have largely refused to use their influence in Iraq.
Once Iraqis resolve their political problems, Obama said, “many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in the fight against [the militants], and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.”
While politicians continued to argue in Baghdad, there were signs of increasing cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the pesh merga, the military force of the Kurdish regional government.
In an unprecedented delivery Friday to Irbil, the Kurdish capital, Iraqi security forces re-supplied the pesh merga with a planeload of ammunition, U.S. defense officials said.
Pesh merga forces, which had not been seriously challenged by militant fighters who have torn through Sunni areas, quickly retreated last week from a surprise Islamic State offensive. As the militants advanced toward Irbil, the Obama administration became increasingly concerned about U.S. personnel there at a consulate and at a joint military center operated with the Kurds.
Obama announced Thursday that the United States would begin airstrikes against militant positions near Irbil and the area around Sinjar, where the Yazidis have taken refuge on a mountain ridge.
The administration has begun internal discussions about sending direct supplies to the pesh merga, although officials denied Kurdish news media reports Saturday that a U.S. shipment of “heavy weapons” had arrived there.
But direct U.S. shipment of any weaponry is complicated on several levels. Official military aid and sales of U.S.-made weaponry are made through the Pentagon and State Department on a
government-to-government basis. While the Kurds have long favored independence, they remain part of Iraq.
At the same time, Iraqi forces use M-4 and M-16 rifles purchased from the United States, while the basic pesh merga weapon is the Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle. The Iraqis have some AK-47s and ammunition, purchased elsewhere, that they can transfer to the pesh merga. The United States has agreed to replenish Iraqi equipment sent to the pesh merga with U.S.-made goods.
Direct U.S. supplies, particularly of non-U.S. goods, would probably not come from the Defense Department but would be indirectly obtained and delivered by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Pentagon prepared Saturday for another airdrop of humanitarian supplies to the stranded Yazidis, following one Thursday and a second Friday. Obama placed calls to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, both of whom agreed to assist the humanitarian effort.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking after a meeting of senior national security officials in London, said that his government would “imminently” carry out its own airdrop of relief, including tents and water, to the Yazidis. British news media said that a Royal Air Force cargo plane would have an escort of U.S. F-18 jets.
But attention was primarily focused on how to secure safe passage for the Yazidis off the elevated area called Mount Sinjar, U.S. and British officials said.
In a response to a question from reporters Saturday, Obama devoted much of his departure remarks to again defending the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.
“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision,” he said. As he has repeatedly said in the past, Obama recalled that the withdrawal agreement was made by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Many Republican lawmakers and former Bush administration officials have accused Obama of indirectly causing the current chaos in Iraq by failing to amend that agreement so that he could say — prior to the 2012 presidential election campaign — that he had ended the U.S. war there that began with Bush’s 2003 invasion.
As he tried to negotiate a residual U.S. force to remain past the December 2011 deadline, neither an invitation from the Iraqi government nor assurances of immunity for U.S. troops from Iraqi prosecution for any alleged offenses were forthcoming, Obama said.
Morris reported from Baghdad.