U.S. forces attack militants in Iraq

By Alissa J. Rubin, Tim Arango and Helene Cooper / New York Times News Service

Obama: U.S. is not the ‘Iraqi Air Force’

President Barack Obama said Friday that he was open to supporting a sustained effort to drive Sunni militants out of Iraq if its leaders form a more inclusive government, even as he vowed that the United States had no intention of “being the Iraqi air force.”

Obama spoke as he ordered American fighter pilots back into the skies over Iraq, a decision that he said he reached after concluding that the United States needed to protect the Kurdish regions in the north and “bolster” an Iraqi leadership that was panicked in the face of advances by the Islamic State militant group.

The president said he was confident that the Iraqi leaders understand that “the cavalry is not coming to the rescue” with ground forces. But he insisted that the United States has a “strategic interest in pushing back” the Islamic State. He suggested a potentially broader mission than the one he described in Thursday’s White House address: to protect American personnel and prevent mass killings of religious minorities.

“We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” the president said in an hourlong interview with Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, as U.S. planes and drones began dropping bombs in Iraq.

Lawmakers offered tempered support for the president’s actions in Iraq, but Obama also drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats for a mission that some called too limited and others worried would draw the United States more deeply back into Iraq.

Obama offered his justifications for his latest use of military force in Iraq while lamenting the outcome of a similar decision he made to intervene militarily in Libya in 2011. He defended the desire to help oust the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, with U.S. air power, but acknowledged that he had “underestimated” the chaos that would follow. In the case of the current fighting in Iraq, he suggested that the outcome would be different than chaos in Libya because efforts to form a government that could help rebuild Iraqi society are moving forward.

“They’ve now elected a president. They’ve elected a speaker of the house,” Obama said. “The final step is to elect a prime minister and to allow that prime minister to form a government.”

— New York Times News Service

DOHUK, Iraq — The United States launched a series of airstrikes against Sunni militants in northern Iraq on Friday, using Predator drones and Navy F/A-18 fighter jets to destroy rebel positions around the city of Irbil, the U.S. military said Friday.

The strikes were aimed at halting the advance of militants with the Islamic State toward Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which is home to a U.S. Consulate and thousands of Americans. The action marked the return of the U.S. to a direct combat role in a country it left in 2011.

Warplanes dropped 500- pound laser-guided bombs on a number of targets: a mobile artillery piece that was being towed from a truck and had begun shelling Irbil, a stationary convoy of seven vehicles, and a mortar position. The military also used a remotely piloted drone to strike another mortar position Friday afternoon. After the first strike, it said in a statement, the militants “returned to the site moments later” and “were attacked again and successfully eliminated.”

Defense officials expressed confidence that they could achieve within a few days one of President Barack Obama’s stated goals: stopping the advance of the militants on Irbil.

Less certain was whether the other objectives Obama had announced — breaking the siege on tens of thousands of refugees stranded on Sinjar Mountain and protecting Americans in Baghdad — could be achieved as quickly, given the instability of Iraq’s internal politics and the difficulty of protecting and eventually evacuating the stranded people.

While Obama said Thursday night that he had authorized military strikes, if necessary, to help liberate the refugees on Sinjar Mountain, all of the military attacks Friday were directed toward stopping the militants’ advance on Irbil.

The leader of the Islamic State sent a defiant message to the U.S. in an audio statement posted on YouTube in June, and recirculated on Twitter on Friday.

“This is the message of the leader of the faithful,” the leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wrote in a message addressed to “America, the defender of the cross.”

“You should know, you defender of the cross, that getting others to fight on your behalf will not do for you in Syria as it will not do for you in Iraq,” he said. “And soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation — forced to do so, God willing. And the sons of Islam have prepared themselves for this day. So wait, and we will be waiting, too.”

Islamic State fighters had come within 25 miles of Irbil in a rapid advance that took U.S. military planners by surprise.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that Islamic State fighters near the mortar positions had been “successfully eliminated,” although he did not say exactly how many had been killed.

Kurdish officials said the first round of U.S. bombs struck Friday afternoon in and around Mahmour, a town near Irbil. They reported an airstrike in the same location Thursday, before Obama’s announcement; the Pentagon denied that U.S. warplanes carried out that earlier attack.

Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have been pressed hard in recent days by the militant fighters, who have seized several towns near Irbil from the Kurds and taken the Mosul Dam, one of the most important installations in the country.

“The airstrikes are being led by the USA, and peshmerga are attacking with Katyusha,” said Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, referring to a type of Russian-made tactical rocket.

Many members of religious minorities in northern Iraq, including Christians, have fled to Kurdish territory to escape the advancing militants, who have imposed harsh fundamentalist rule in areas they control. Others — including tens of thousands of Yazidis, who follow an ancient faith linked to Zoroastrianism and are stranded in a mountainous area to the west — have been trapped and besieged by the militants. Delivering humanitarian aid to that group is one of the purposes of the U.S. operations in Iraq, Obama said.

Britain, a close ally and coalition partner of the U.S. in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Friday that it would not take part in the current military action but would provide humanitarian aid and technical help.

“What we have decided today is to assist the United States in the humanitarian operations that started yesterday,” the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said in London on Friday.

Turkey, a NATO ally that borders northern Iraq, said Friday that it, too, would increase humanitarian aid to the region, news agencies reported.

Nikolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s top envoy in Iraq, said airdrops of aid Friday had reached a fraction of the 100,000 people trapped on Sinjar Mountain. Mladenov has proposed a humanitarian corridor that would allow civilians to travel from the mountain to a safe zone in a Kurdish-controlled area. Late Friday, the U.S. military said it had made a second round of airdrops of food and water.

But the civilians are currently trapped between front lines. The fighting would have to stop to open such a corridor, or the warring parties would have to agree to let people pass into safety. Mladenov said negotiations were underway. “It’s a matter of days,” he said. “It depends on two things. First, how successful the airdrops can be — they’ve been there for a few days; there’s no access to water, food, medicine. Secondly, it depends on the security situation on the ground.”