U.S. warplanes and armed drones pounded Sunni militants in northern Iraq on Sunday with multiple airstrikes near the Kurdish capital of Irbil, marking the third straight day of punishing attacks on Islamic State forces.
The American assaults were credited with helping Kurdish forces reclaim two towns that had fallen into the hands of Islamic State militants. It apparently was the first time U.S. airstrikes were called in to defend the beleaguered Kurdish forces, who have struggled against the well-armed group, an Al Qaeda offshoot that has seized a broad swath of Iraq and Syria in recent months.
The four airstrikes destroyed three armed vehicles and a mortar position used by the extremist group to fire on Kurdish security forces, according to U.S. Central Command. All the aircraft returned safely.
Previous attacks had targeted the insurgents' heavy weapons near Irbil, or the positions from which they fired on Yazidi refugees who have fled to the rugged Sinjar mountains for safety.
Kurdish forces known as peshmerga have chased the militants from the area around the town of Gwer and have regained "effective control" of another town, Makhmour, Kurdish officials said. Both are about 30 miles from Irbil.
The towns' seizure by Islamic State forces last week had spurred fear that the militants could threaten the heartland of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, whose leaders have long been major U.S. allies.
Kurdish officials were quoted in local news media saying the recapture of the towns indicates that Kurds, now backed by U.S. intelligence and jet fighters, have turned the tide in the battle against the extremists.
President Obama, who is vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, authorized America's latest intervention in Iraq on Thursday.
He approved what he called targeted airstrikes to prevent the potential genocide of members of the minority Yazidi sect and to protect Irbil, which is home to hundreds of U.S. diplomats, troops, contractors and other Americans. On Saturday, he said the operation might take months.
The United States also has been airdropping food and water to the displaced Yazidis, many of whom have been trapped on a mountainside. On Sunday night, the U.S. said it had dropped more food and water. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, arriving in Baghdad on Sunday, said France would also provide "several tons of aid" to displaced Iraqis, the Associated Press reported.
The State Department announced that it was relocating some of its consular staff from Irbil and Baghdad, sending them to Basra, in southern Iraq, and Amman, Jordan. However, it said that both the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil would remain open.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is encountering stiff opposition in his bid for a third term, went on television to accuse the newly elected president of violating the constitution by failing to name a prime minister by a deadline Sunday.
Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has alienated many Sunni Arabs, pushing some to ally with Islamic State fighters, or at least sit out the conflict. The State Department said the U.S. backs the president, Fouad Massoum, as guarantor of the constitution, and reiterated its call for Iraqis to form an inclusive government.
In Washington, Obama's chief foreign policy critics accused him of lacking a clear strategy for confronting the Islamic State, charging that targeted airstrikes will not be enough to defeat the growing threat.
In separate TV interviews, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that the Islamic State posed a threat to the United States and that the president's focus on political reconciliation in Iraq was not the answer.
"This is not a replacement for a strategy to deal with an existential threat to the homeland," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "We have to have a sustained air campaign in Syria and Iraq. We need to go on offense."
McCain, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," said the U.S. should launch airstrikes in Syria as well as Iraq, and give further assistance to Syrian opposition forces and to the Kurds.
"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, and launching three strikes around a place where a horrible humanitarian crisis is taking place … is clearly very, very ineffective, to say the least," McCain said.
Democrats offered a more cautious assessment. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said the president needed to stick to his "limited" mission.
"Escalating it is not in the cards," Durbin said on NBC'S "Meet the Press." "I think the president's made it clear this is a limited strike. He has, I believe, most congressional support for that at this moment. To go beyond is really going to be a challenge."
Former U.S. diplomats and military commanders in Iraq similarly offered mixed assessments.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said that waiting for the formation of a more inclusive Iraqi government won't be a "magical solution."
Although the White House wants Maliki to step down, "he could be replaced by someone who is not as competent in terms of bringing people together and not as competent as we would like," Khalilzad said on CNN.
Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, the former U.S. commander in the northern city of Mosul, said the first three days of U.S. airstrikes appear to "have at least given pause to the Islamic extremists."
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," he added, "Much more effort will be required to achieve a positive outcome longer term." But Obama is correct that "there has got to be a responsible government in Baghdad to which a future Iraqi army can be loyal."
McDonnell reported from Irbil, Hennessey from Chilmark, Mass., and Memoli from Washington.