U.S. warplanes and drones stepped up attacks against Islamist militants in northern Iraq on Saturday, as President Obama warned that the effort to help Iraqi forces deny a safe haven to “barbaric terrorists” and help rescue thousands of trapped religious refugees wouldn’t be a short-term mission.
With four new airstrikes against armored vehicles, after three launched from an aircraft carrier on Friday, the U.S. military took on a greater role in trying to stop the well-armed Sunni extremists threatening the northern city of Irbil and firing heavy weapons at unarmed members of the Yazidi faith.
Speaking on the White House South Lawn, Obama said the U.S. would work with other governments and the United Nations to try to create a humanitarian corridor to bring to safety the Yazidis who are under siege atop Mt. Sinjar.
"I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said before departing for a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard. "I think this is going to take some time."
Obama made it clear that success would hinge in large part on whether Iraqi leaders can create a unity government that accommodates the country's diverse political, religious and ethnic factions. Since taking office in 2006, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government has jailed political opponents and alienated minority Sunni Muslims, creating space for Sunni extremists led by the Al Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State to operate.
"The most important timetable that I'm focused on right now is the Iraqi government getting formed," Obama said. "In the absence of an Iraqi government, it is very hard to get a unified effort by Iraqis" against the extremists, he said.
It would be a "big mistake for us to think that we can, on the cheap, simply go in, tamp everything down again," unless Iraq's leaders agree to compromise, he said.
Obama said that the first airstrikes he had authorized Thursday destroyed arms and equipment of Islamic State fighters advancing on Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and that the U.S. was stepping up assistance to Kurdish forces defending the city.
The airstrikes and drone attacks in Iraq, the first since Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops in late 2011, were accelerated Saturday, with the U.S. military announcing the four additional missions late Saturday afternoon.
The first, by "a mix of U.S. fighters and remotely piloted aircraft," destroyed an armored personnel carrier after observing it "firing on Yazidi civilians near Sinjar," according to a statement by U.S. Central Command.
Ten minutes later, U.S warplanes struck two more armored personnel carriers and an armed truck. American planes hit another armored vehicle near Sinjar four hours later, apparently destroying it, the statement said. "All aircraft safely exited the area," the military reported.
Unlike recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the U.S. military is operating largely on its own this time.
In phone conversation with Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande both agreed Saturday to join the emergency relief efforts underway on Mt. Sinjar. But neither of Washington's closest military allies is taking part in the airstrikes against Sunni militants laying siege to minority religious group members, including the Yazidis, adherents of an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism.
Describing what he called his "broader strategy," Obama outlined more ambitious objectives than the White House previously had suggested.
It reflected a deepening realization of the danger posed by fighters with the Islamic State, which caught U.S. intelligence agencies off guard by capturing much of northern Iraq and Syria in recent months. The group has declared creation of an Islamic caliphate in the vast territory it controls and threatened to kill those practicing other religions who refuse to leave or convert to Islam.
"We will protect our American citizens in Iraq, whether they're diplomats, civilians or military," Obama said, citing the presence of thousands Americans living and working in Irbil. "If these terrorists threaten our facilities or our personnel, we will take action to protect our people."
He added, "We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists, so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven."
A White House official said later that Obama was not suggesting the U.S. military would take a lead in the battle against the Islamic State.
The militant group already in effect controls Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and the country's largest dam, as well as Fallouja, Ramadi and other cities and towns in northern and western Iraq where U.S. forces once fought. Its forces are now about 25 miles from Irbil. American personnel there include diplomats at a U.S. consulate and 100 military advisors who coordinate intelligence sharing and other joint operations.
U.S. military cargo planes flanked by Navy fighter jets dropped pallets of water and packaged meals in two runs Friday to thousands of hungry Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar. A third aid drop took place Saturday night, the Pentagon said.
The U.S military has delivered more than 52,000 ready-to-eat meals and more than 10,600 gallons of water to displaced Yazidis since Thursday.
Obama said he was confident that U.S. airstrikes could prevent the extremists from "going up the mountain and slaughtering" the refugees.
"But the next step, which is going to be complicated logistically, is how do we give safe passage for people down from the mountain, and where can we ultimately relocate them so that they are safe?" Obama said. "That's the kind of coordination that we need to do internationally."
A senior U.S. military officer said creating a humanitarian corridor to evacuate thousands of refugees "will require some armed force on the ground."
Whether those would be Iraqi army troops or others has yet to be decided, he said.
Obama has vowed not to send U.S. ground troops back into Iraq, a pledge he repeated Saturday even as he raised the prospect of a prolonged military engagement.
He strongly rejected criticism that it was a mistake to pull U.S. combat forces out three years ago, saying the "entire argument is bogus and wrong" and is most often advanced by those responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said he had no choice because Iraqi leaders refused to sign an agreement to let a residual force stay.
In a letter to congressional leaders Friday night, Obama said military options would be "limited in their scope and duration," and were specifically designed to stop the advance of Islamic State forces on Irbil and to assist Iraqi forces.
On Saturday he said he didn't expect to request new funds from Congress in the near term. Doing so could provoke a fight with lawmakers, who have scheduled only a few workdays before the November election. Many members will spend the next three months on the campaign trail.
The GOP-led House overwhelmingly passed a resolution in July that would require the president to seek congressional approval for any new "sustained combat" operation in Iraq.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered support for the president's actions. He called the operation "a necessary response to an immediate threat to American personnel and facilities" and described the militants' advances as "a grave threat to our interests and regional stability."
Still, Obama faced some skepticism from within his party.
"While this is strictly an air mission, I still have concerns," Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said in a statement. "It is very apparent that Iraq is sadly descending into chaos and that the Iraqi people must step up to govern their own country in an inclusive manner and protect and fight for their own country. Ultimately, no number of American troops can solve these underlying problems."
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.