AUG. 9, 2014
Iraq Airstrikes May Continue for Months, Obama Says
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and TIM ARANGO
WASHINGTON -- President Obama said on Saturday that the airstrikes and humanitarian assistance drops he ordered last week in Iraq could go on for months, preparing Americans for an extended military presence in the skies there as Iraq's leaders try to build a new government.
"I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks," Mr. Obama told reporters before leaving for a two-week golf-and-beach vacation on Martha's Vineyard. "This is going to be a long-term project."
The president repeated his insistence that his administration would not send ground troops back to Iraq after ending an unpopular, decade-long war and withdrawing the last troops in 2011. But two days after emphasizing the limited scope of the mission in a White House address, he pledged that the United States would stand with Iraq if it could form a unified and inclusive government to counter the Sunni militants who threaten its future.
"Changing that environment so that the millions of Sunnis who live in these areas feel connected to and well served by a national government, that's a long-term process," he said during a lengthy departure statement on the White House lawn during which he took several questions from reporters.
The American military continued striking militants in Iraq on Saturday, with jet fighters and drones conducting four attacks that military officers said were designed to defend Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority.
In a statement issued late Saturday, the military's Central Command said American fighters and drones first hit one of two armored personnel carriers that fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were using to fire on civilians near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq. In follow-up strikes, American aircraft hit three more ISIS armored personnel carriers and a truck with weapons, the statement said. All of the aircraft returned safely.
The president's assessment of the campaign's duration came as ISIS militants began advancing along a main road up Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis remained trapped. In Mosul, residents reported that nearly two dozen bodies of ISIS fighters, said to have been killed in American airstrikes, had arrived at the city's morgue, while at least 30 wounded fighters were being treated at a hospital.
A significant number of Yazidis were said to be fleeing from the mountain toward Syria, according to two American officials and Yazidi refugees along the border. With American military confirmation that American warplanes had carried out attacks Saturday on ISIS forces shooting at the Yazidis, it appeared that a way off the mountain had opened for at least some. A number of the civilians appeared to still be on the mountain, and the situation remained desperate, American officials said.
Some Yazidis have cellphones and have been in regular touch with American officials as they try to escape.
It is estimated that 5,000 to 12,000 Yazidis fled Mount Sinjar on Saturday and more were expected on Sunday, according to one American official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing internal information. The Yazidis have been fleeing by car as well as on foot, the official said, and many were said to be dying along the way.
The American military also carried out its third airdrop of food and water over Mount Sinjar, according to Central Command.
One C-17 and two C-130 cargo planes, escorted by American jet fighters, carried out the mission, which brings the total American assistance to more than 52,000 meals and more than 10,600 gallons of fresh water, the command said.
Saturday was the first time Mr. Obama had addressed the question of a timeline for the military intervention in Iraq, and his remarks are likely to raise new questions, especially among those who fear that the mission could slowly pull America back into a more robust involvement in the country. The president said he would not give a "particular timetable" on the new operations.
Aides said that Mr. Obama had not committed to years of continuous airstrikes while Iraqis develop a new government, but that his comments reflected the uncertainty of a military effort that will be re-evaluated in the months ahead.
The open-ended nature of Mr. Obama's actions presents a tricky political problem for a president who campaigned against what he once called a "dumb war" and repeatedly pressed Republicans to set a date for the departure of American troops from the battlefield. The last American troops left Iraq in December 2011, yet Mr. Obama now finds himself in charge of a new, if very different, military operation there with no certain end in sight.
When he announced the airstrikes  on Thursday night, Mr. Obama emphasized the immediate goals of protecting Americans in Baghdad and in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, and helping to rescue the Iraqis trapped by ISIS fighters on the mountain. In his remarks Saturday morning, he focused more on the need to help Iraqis over the long term, giving them what he called space to develop a government that can fight back against militants.
But his acknowledgment that the effort in Iraq will take time may not be enough to satisfy Republican critics, many of whom accuse Mr. Obama of failing to embrace a sufficiently aggressive air mission aimed at driving the militants out of Iraq and Syria.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and Mr. Obama's 2008 presidential opponent, said Saturday that Mr. Obama's vision for military operations against militants in Iraq was too narrow. He said the actions ordered by the president were not nearly enough to counter a growing threat from "the richest, most powerful terrorist organization in history."
"Obviously, the president of the United States does not appreciate this is not just a threat to American troops on the ground, or even Iraq or Kurdistan," Mr. McCain said in a telephone interview from Vietnam, where he was traveling with a congressional delegation. "This is a threat to America."
In describing a potentially long time frame for military action in Iraq, Mr. Obama cited in part the danger and complexity of the rescue mission on Mount Sinjar. The military at that point had airdropped 36,224 meals to the refugees, officials said. But Mr. Obama said the much harder task of creating a safe corridor for them would take more time. "The next step, which is going to be complicated logistically, is how can we give people safe passage," he said.
Defense Department officials expressed confidence that they could achieve within a few days one of Mr. Obama's announced goals: stopping the advance of the militants on Erbil, where hundreds of American diplomatic officials and military advisers are stationed. On Friday, the military struck a number of ISIS targets near Erbil, including a stationary convoy of seven vehicles and a mobile artillery unit that was being towed by a truck.
"We can stop them from moving into Erbil," a senior Defense Department official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe military planning. "The cost will become too high. There will be a tremendous amount of deterrence in these strikes."
But officials said breaking the siege on Mount Sinjar and protecting Americans in Baghdad from advancing ISIS militants would take more time, particularly given the instability of Iraq's internal politics and the vagaries of protecting and eventually evacuating the stranded Iraqis.
In Baghdad, efforts to name a replacement for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, stalled on Saturday, with Mr. Maliki clinging to power and rivals unable to decide on an alternative. A session of Parliament scheduled for Sunday, when leaders had been expected to nominate a new prime minister, was postponed until Monday."Until this moment, nothing has changed," said Kamal al-Saadi, a member of Parliament from Mr. Maliki's bloc. "We are sticking with our only candidate, Maliki."
Earlier, Mr. Obama said the length of American involvement would depend on how quickly Iraqi leaders could form 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 Mr. Maliki because they believe that he is incapable of uniting the country to face the militant threat.
Mr. Obama said an inclusive government would give all Iraqis a reason to believe that they were represented, and Iraqi military forces a motive to fight back against the militants. Once that happens, he said, the American military, working with Iraqi and Kurdish fighters, can "engage in some offense."
"The most important timetable that I'm focused on right now is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalized," he said before boarding Marine One.
Hours before Mr. Obama spoke in Washington, 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 would use it, at least for now, to provide water and electricity to the areas they control.
As ISIS consolidates its control of territory, it has shown an intent to act strategically when it comes to natural resources. But its control over the fragile dam also gives the group the ability to create a civilian catastrophe: A break could unleash a tidal wave over Mosul and cause flooding and deaths along the Tigris River south to Baghdad and beyond, experts said.
In London, the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said Royal Air Force planes would "imminently" begin humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq. President François Hollande of France also pledged humanitarian support, officials said.
Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Tim Arango from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper and Jonathan Weisman from Washington; Alissa J. Rubin from Fishkhabour, Iraq; Omar Al-Jawoshy from Baghdad; Alan Cowell from London; and Michael R. Gordon from Naypyidaw, Myanmar.