The United States began an aerial offensive over Iraq last week in an effort to stem the rapid spread of the radical jihadist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been massacring members of religious minorities and majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq and threatening to destabilize the entire region.
Yet the administration has also made clear that these operations will not involve troops on the ground, and called Iraq’s government to restructure itself and handle ISIL on its own. Airstrikes and relief efforts began on Aug. 8, as ISIL forces advanced toward the city of Erbil in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where American security advisers are based. According to a statement released by Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, two U.S. Navy F/A-18s from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on mobile artillery units that ISIL uses against the defending Kurdish forces.
Hours later, the United States conducted two more strikes in the region – the first, on an ISIL mortar position by an unmanned vehicle followed by another fighter sortie that destroyed ISIL militants and a convoy that returned to the area of their mortar site, according to a later statement by Kirby. American cargo aircraft – a C-17 and two C-130s – have also airdropped food and water to the Yazidi minority group which fled from ISIL to the top of Mount Sinjar and was surrounded by ISIL militants threatening to slaughter them.
Coordinated airstrikes continued through the weekend using combinations of unmanned Predator drones and U.S. Navy fighters. Humanitarian aid and surveillance has also been provided by the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke to the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon, thanking the U.K. for its contributions.
“I am absolutely delighted that the U.S. is stepping up to the plate again in Iraq,” said Baroness Emma Nicholson, the British prime minister’s trade envoy to Iraq and a member of the House of Lords. “Thank God for the U.S., helping Iraq regain her territory from teenage thugs on a suicidal mission to destroy the country.”
In an address last Thursday, President Barack Obama announced that he had given the U.S. military permission to conduct targeted airstrikes against ISIL militants and bring humanitarian relief to the Yazidis.
“To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” the president said. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.”
The president said he had communicated and received support for the authorization by members of Congress.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help – in this case, a request from the Iraqi government – and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” he said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Obama did not specify how long the strikes will continue, but said that ground troops will not be deployed and that the United States will not be dragged into a ground war in Iraq — saying that he believes that the American military cannot be the solution, which will come only from a unified and stable Iraqi government that does not exclude any Iraqi minority group.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf last Friday reiterated the president’s position that American military involvement in Iraq will not solve sectarian violence there and that the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish security forces, known as Peshmerga, would need to take full responsibility for defeating ISIL on the ground, although with American support.
Harf said that in recent days, the Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga have been cooperating in “unprecedented” ways, with the Iraqi Security Forces offering to provide air support and ammunition to the Kurds.
Though lawmakers are supportive of the president’s efforts, some prominent Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized the president’s late entry into the fray and narrowly tailored objectives.
“A policy of containment will not work against ISIS. It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped,” wrote McCain and Graham in a joint statement. “The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become, as recent events clearly show. We need to get beyond a policy of half measures.”
Boehner told Politico that though he believes that the airstrikes were appropriate, he is dissatisfied with what he sees as the lack of a long-term plan for dealing with ISIL.
At last Friday’s press conference, Harf of the State Department tried to explain why it took the administration so long to make the decision to strike against ISIL despite months of requests for assistance from the Iraqi government. “
We looked at the threat and we looked at the picture and we saw here both a humanitarian situation where the U.S. military had unique capabilities to bring to bear that could be brought very quickly to bear in a very urgent crisis and also a situation where you had ISIL advancing on Erbil, where again we have some military capabilities that we can use,” said Harf. “We are confident [in] the combination of U.S. airpower being brought to bear against these targets and giving the Peshmerga some space to regroup.”
JNS.org contributed to this story
Washington Jewish Week Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey W. Melada contributed to this story.