U.S. President Barack Obama said the fight against militants in Iraq will be a “long-term project,” as he pressed the nation’s leaders to quickly form a more inclusive government critical to its defense.
The advances by Islamic State fighters who have taken over much of northern Iraq have been ’’more rapid’’ than anticipated by intelligence officials and policymakers in the U.S. and Iraq, Obama told reporters today on the White House lawn.
Obama said the U.S. will be prepared to do more against the Sunni Islamist insurgents — short of returning American ground combat forces to Iraq — if political leaders form an inclusive government that can draw support from the nation’s factions, including Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama said in his most extensive comments on the U.S. position since authorizing airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops in Iraq on Aug. 6. “This is going to take some time.”
U.S. aircraft hit Islamic State militants in multiple strikes yesterday at the start of a sustained campaign to protect American personnel and prevent the massacre of ethnic and religious minorities.
Those forces will carry out more attacks to break a siege of thousands of civilians trapped by militants atop barren Sinjar Mountain, Obama said. Most of those under attack are members of the Yezidi religious minority, who are facing the militants’ threats of death if they don’t convert to Islam.
Obama said the U.S. is considering how to “give safe passage for people down from the mountain and where can we ultimately relocate them so that they are safe.”
“That will be complicated logistically,” he said.
A Kurdish helicopter carrying aid was swarmed by hundreds of people desperate for water and food on the rocky, treeless mountain, according to a video released by Rudaw, a Kurdish news organization, and posted on the Washington Post website. The video showed the helicopter returning fire from Islamic State forces as it headed to the mountain.
Obama said he spoke today with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. The U.K. announced it is sending two planes with humanitarian aid for the stranded Yezidis, including water and 500 solar lanterns that can also be used to charge mobile phones.
“We can expect a continuing drumbeat of airdrop operations, working in coordination with the U.S. and potentially with others as well,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview broadcast today.
He also said the U.K. will look at how to help get Yezidis off Sinjar Mountain.
Obama repeatedly pressed the need for an inclusive Iraqi government without mentioning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who was the top vote-getter in recent elections. The U.S., which regards Maliki as a divisive leader who marginalized minority Sunnis, has been urging Iraqi political leaders to choose an alternative. Maliki has sought to retain power.
“Once an inclusive government is in place, I’m confident it will be easier to mobilize all Iraqis” against the Islamic State fighters and to “mobilize greater support from our friends and allies,” he said.
The political environment needs to change in Iraq so that millions of Sunnis “feel connected to and well served by a national government,” he said.
Saying the current operation may take “some months,” Obama reiterated that he won’t commit U.S. ground forces to Iraq. He said he would stick to that “because we should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion in Iraq,” referring to that U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 under President George W. Bush.
“The nature of this problem is not one that the U.S. military can solve,” he said. “Our military obviously can play an extraordinarily important role in bolstering efforts of an Iraqi partner as they make the right steps to keep their country together. But we can’t do it for them.”
Obama ran for president in 2008 on ending the war in Iraq, and under his administration the last U.S. troops left the country in December 2011.
“The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq is because a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there,’” he said.
Islamic State, which was previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has declared its own self-styled caliphate in the territory it has seized, highlighting the central government’s inability to ensure security under Maliki.
After its breakthrough two months ago, when it routed the Iraqi army and seized the city of Mosul, the group has returned to the offensive this week, defeating Kurdish fighters and sparking a refugee crisis, especially among Yezidi communities near the Syrian border.
U.S. combat jets and drones bombed an artillery installation, mortar positions and a militant convoy in three separate missions near Erbil yesterday. The Kurdish regional capital is home to U.S. diplomatic staff and an operations center where American military personnel are advising Iraqi forces.
Obama authorized the strikes earlier this week after pleas from Iraq’s central government and Kurdish leaders trying to blunt the advance of the Islamic State, which has terrorized religious minorities and used beheadings to intimidate the civilian population.