Aug 8, 2014

Airstrikes Could Be Used More Broadly in Iraq, Officials Say

By Dion Nissenbaum

President Barack Obama set the U.S. military off on an uncharted military campaign in Iraq [1] that is meant to repel Sunni extremist advances but not spark all-out war with the group, senior Obama administration officials say.

For the first time since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Mr. Obama authorized airstrikes in Iraq [2] meant to prevent the Islamic State from advancing on the Kurdish capital of Erbil and break the group's stranglehold on thousands of refugees trapped in mountains.

If Iraqi forces aren't able to break the siege trapping the refugees from the Yazidi religious minority [3] who are being targeted by the Sunni extremists, administration officials said they are prepared to stage further humanitarian drops of relief supplies in the coming days.

While the president said the operations would be limited, senior administration officials indicated that U.S. airstrikes could be used more broadly to hit Sunni extremists any place they are seen to pose a threat to American interests in Iraq.

One senior administration official suggested that could include strikes on militants that have captured Iraq's largest dam near Mosul.

"We're laying down a marker here," the official said. "Just their presence...and the potential threat they pose could lead us to take action if targets present themselves."

The U.S. now has near continuous manned and unmanned surveillance planes flying over Erbil to assess the Islamic State's threat, defense officials said.

"We will strike at a time and place of our choosing," said one senior defense official.

Even with the nebulous mandate, the officials emphasized that this wasn't the start of a broad campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

"We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against ISIL here," the first official said, using an acronym for the group commonly used by the administration. The authorization doesn't include potential strikes against Islamic State forces in neighboring Syria.

Mr. Obama's decision was the result of a busy day of National Security Council meetings and calls with U.S. lawmakers, along with consultations with Iraqi leaders and U.S. allies. Secretary of State John Kerry took part in one meeting after he arrived in Kabul for an unannounced trip to deal with Afghanistan's stalemate over the disputed presidential election. [4] Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took part in the same meeting while on a trip to India.