(Top) Peshmerga fighters in Khazer, 40km west of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region; President Obama in Washington on Saturday. (AFP, AP)
Washington, Aug. 9: President Obama said today that the strikes against Sunni militants which began the day before could continue for months, laying the groundwork for an extended airstrike campaign against in Iraq.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama told reporters before leaving for a two-week vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. “This is going to be a long-term project.”
The President repeated his insistence that the US would not send ground combat troops back to Iraq. But he pledged that the US and other countries would stand with Iraqi leaders against the militants if the leaders build an inclusive government in the months ahead.
Hours before Obama spoke, Sunni militants in northern Iraq ordered engineers to return to work on the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, suggesting that the extremists who captured the dam last week after fierce battles with Kurdish forces will use it, at least for now, to provide water and electricity to the areas they control, and not as a weapon.
Prompted by the seizure of the dam by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, along with the dire circumstances of tens of thousands of civilians stranded in the mountains near Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq, President Obama quickly ordered airdrops of humanitarian aid and airstrikes on militant positions near the Kurdish capital, Arbil.
As Islamic State consolidates its control of territory, it has acted brutally, carrying out executions and forcing out minority groups. But it has also displayed an intent to act strategically when it comes to natural resources, highlighted by the call today for engineers on the dam to get back to work.
Its control over the dam, however, also gives the group the ability to create a civilian catastrophe: A break in the fragile dam could unleash a tidal wave over the city of Mosul and cause flooding and countless deaths along the Tigris river south to Baghdad and beyond, experts have said.
The Islamic State order came as residents in Mosul reported that nearly two dozen bodies of Islamic State fighters, said to be killed in American airstrikes, arrived at the city’s morgue, while at least 30 wounded fighters were being treated at a hospital.
In Baghdad, efforts by leaders to name a replacement for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shia, stalled, with Maliki clinging to power and rivals unable to decide on an alternative.
A session of Parliament scheduled for tomorrow — when leaders had been expected to nominate a new Prime Minister — was postponed until Monday, as some Shia leaders rushed to Iran, which holds enormous power in Iraq, and Sunni politicians visited Arbil to confer with the Kurds.
“Until this moment, nothing has changed,” said Kamal al-Saadi, an MP from Maliki’s bloc. “We are sticking with our only candidate, Maliki.”
Earlier, Obama had suggested that wider American military support, including an expansion of the airstrikes, could come if Iraqi leaders formed a national unity government with meaningful roles for the country’s two main minority groups, Sunnis and Kurds.
Without saying so explicitly, American officials have been quietly working to replace Maliki because they believe that he is incapable of uniting the country to face the militant threat.
Today, Obama said an inclusive Iraqi government would give all Iraqis a reason to believe that they were represented and help give Iraqi military forces a reason to fight back against the militants.
His announcement prompted immediate criticism from Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who said in an interview by telephone from Vietnam that the President’s vision for the campaign was insufficient to fight “the richest, most powerful terrorist organisation in history”.
The US continued today its efforts to address the crisis in Iraq, as three American military cargo planes, escorted by Navy F-18 fighter jets, dropped more food and water on Mount Sinjar to help refugees who fled there under threat from the Sunni militants.
The humanitarian assistance came after a day of military strikes by Navy warplanes and Predator drones on Islamic State artillery positions. The planes — one C-17 and two C-130s — dropped more than 28,000 ready-to-eat meals and more than 1,500 gallons of fresh drinking water, the Pentagon said.
That brings the number of meals delivered to the refugees to 36,224 in the last two days. In London, foreign secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement on television that Royal Air Force planes would begin humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq “imminently.”
Britain announced yesterday that it would support the American relief effort there but would avoid military action. Britain was a close ally of the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in operations in Afghanistan, but its appetite for overseas military deployments has faded.
Last year, Parliament refused to authorise military action in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons in the civil war there.
The Islamic State’s advance northward over the last week appears to be a shift in strategy, as the group had previously announced its intent to march on Baghdad. That was stalled when Shia militias quickly mobilised to defend the capital.
While the Islamic State has been the most prominent fighting force of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, its gains could not have come without the support of other Sunni groups, experts say, including fighters aligned with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.