WASHINGTON – The US is prepared for a long fight against extremist Sunni terrorists in Iraq, US President Barack Obama said on Saturday, after reasserting American involvement in the region this week by ordering air strikes against assets of the Islamic State.
Nearly a dozen targets were successfully eliminated by US forces on Friday as Obama administration officials outlined two initial priorities in its new military campaign: the protection of American personnel in Arbil, a city in northern Iraq hosting a US consulate; and the prevention of a genocide against the Yazidi people, now huddled on a mountaintop threatened by slaughter from fighters from Islamic State.
The Iraqi government welcomed the new US role, as did the semi-autonomous regional council of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been fighting against an aggressive Islamic State advance into its territory in recent days.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama said. “I think this is going to take some time.”
The Islamic State – formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria, or ISIS – seeks a caliphate throughout Iraq and the Levant region of the Middle East, and the extermination of all non Sunni Muslims – including Yazidis, Christians, Jews and many other sects of Islam.
Responding to the strikes, the Islamic State called the new US policy “cowardly” for only sending unmanned drones, and not soldiers, to fight their growing regime.
Asked for reaction to the statement, Pentagon spokesman R.-Adm. John Kirby said, “real men don’t behead and abuse children.”
Thousands of civilians are feared dead across the territories already under control of the Islamic State, including large swaths of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
Thousands of Yazidis have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter.
Islamic State terrorists have threatened to kill more than 300 families from Iraq’s Yazidi ethnic minority unless they convert to Islam, witnesses and a Yazidi lawmaker told Reuters on Saturday.
The families in the villages of Koja, Hatimiya and Qaboshi are surrounded by the Sunni gunmen who are mounting an offensive through northern Iraq that has sent tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians fleeing for their lives.
On Friday, the US conducted two airdrops of aid to those on Mount Sinjar, and expects to deliver several more. The UK and France committed to assist in the process over the weekend.
Forming a humanitarian corridor that will allow safe passage off the mountain for Yazidis, Obama said, will be “complicated logistically,” and may take time.
Before leaving for vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, the president also told reporters that US military action against the “barbaric” terrorist group was not a long-term strategy for Iraq’s problems.
The US, nevertheless, was prepared to help the Iraqi people – and as commander-in-chief, his obligation is to protect US citizens around the world.
The White House also recognizes “a counterterrorism element that we are already preparing for” emerging from the threat of the Islamic State, Obama continued.
“We’re going to be pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together,” he said. “Until we do that, it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to not just play defense, but also engage in some offense.”
Over the weekend, the Islamic State continued its strategic push through Iraqi territory, taking control of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, a key source of power and a structurally fragile piece of Iraqi infrastructure.
The US military has warned that failure to adequately maintain the dam could lead to catastrophic failure for the people of Mosul, a city down river the size of Washington, DC.
“It’s a hugely important, strategically important location,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Friday.
Members of Congress generally welcomed the air campaign, which the White House said would be limited in scope, while declining to define a time frame.
Some Republicans, including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), suggested the strikes were too little, too late, against an organization that has grown by their estimates into an army of 10,000 trained fighters, and is now equipped with sophisticated US military equipment stolen from the Iraqi security forces.
Others, including some to the president’s Left, fear without a fixed timetable for the operation the US’s involvement in Iraq could expand beyond its original goals.
To those concerned with yet another military operation in the country after a decade of war, Obama – who campaigned for president on ending involvement in Iraq – vowed to avoid a prolonged effort that would involve troops on the ground.
“As commander-in-chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said in a televised address to the nation on Thursday night. “Even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”
Reuters contributed to this report.