The U.S. conducted new airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq today and Iraq’s parliament went home without ending a political deadlock that’s seen as adding to the turmoil.
Coming to the aid of Kurdish forces near Erbil, the regional capital, the U.S. used fighter jets and armed drones to destroy several armed trucks and a mortar position held by militants, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, said in a statement.
The strikes against militants, which President Barack Obama said will be a “long-term project,” followed four yesterday against Islamic State forces that the U.S. said were attacking civilians from the minority Yezidi sect near the town of Sinjar.
The administration’s actions drew stepped-up criticism from Republican lawmakers today, who on the Sunday network talk shows accused the president of doing too little, too late against a widening terrorist threat.
“Mr. President, if you don’t adjust your strategy, these people are coming here,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
The targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. forces and respond to a humanitarian crisis “is not a replacement for a strategy to deal with an existential threat to the homeland,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” He was referring to the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
“If you don’t hit them in Syria, you’ll never solve the problem in Iraq,” Graham said.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the strikes are “clearly very, very ineffective to say the least,” as Islamic State “continues to make gains everywhere.”
McCain urged airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, sending aid to the Free Syrian Army, better training for the Kurds in Iraq and sending more military equipment to Erbil.
“This is turning into, as we had predicted for a long time, a regional conflict which does pose a threat to the security of the United States of America,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Democrats defended Obama’s more limited military objectives.
“We’re protecting U.S. interests as far as the safety of U.S. personnel in the northern part of Iraq,” Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox. “We’re not going to use our military to take care of what the Iraqis should be taking care of.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” estimated “several thousand Americans or people that we’re responsible for” might be in northern Iraq. Jeffrey is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement today that it has relocated a “limited number of staff members” from the Embassy in Baghdad and Consulate General in Erbil to the Consulate General in Basrah and the Iraq Support Unit in Amman. In the statement it also warned U.S. citizens against all except essential travel to Iraq.
Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, is home to U.S. diplomatic staff and an operations center where American military personnel are advising Iraqi forces.
Obama said yesterday the success in the fight against the militants hinges on the ability of Iraq to form a new, more inclusive government.
“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.”
Those efforts were set back today when Iraq’s parliament adjourned until Aug. 19 without resolving a dispute over a new prime minister, which has hampered efforts to tackle militants in control of northern areas of the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term amid accusations by Kurdish and Sunni politicians, as well as some former Shiite allies, of leading a divisive, sectarian government that has fueled support for the al-Qaeda breakaway group known as the Islamic State.
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.
The strikes conducted so far aren’t sufficient to roll back Islamic State forces from Iraq, said retired General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army.
“We are containing them in very limited areas,” Keane said on Fox. “To change the nature of this campaign, the president would have to change the orders to the military.” That would require waging an “offensive campaign” to destroy command and control centers and logistics units, he 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,” said Obama, who authorized airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops on Aug. 8. “This is going to take some time.”
Retired General Carter Ham, a former commander of U.S. troops in Mosul, a city now occupied by Islamic State, said the initial rounds of airstrikes are having some positive effects.
“It appears to have at least given pause to the Islamic extremists as they seek to advance toward Erbil and other cities,” Ham said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “But much more effort will be required to achieve a positive outcome longer-term.”
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 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.
That is easier said than done, said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“I think the chances of getting that and getting it immediately is not very good,” Khalilzad said on CNN. Forming a unified government under a new prime minister, even if successful, will take months to achieve.
“It’s not a magical solution that tomorrow there is a government and everything will start working,” he said.
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 has 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 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.
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.