US airstrikes hit ISIS in northern Iraq

President Obama has been reluctant to get involved in Iraq again, but conflicts of this kind have a way of taking on a life of their own. At the very least, this is unlikely to be a short engagement.

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Last night, President Obama announced that the United States military was undertaking an effort to provide humanitarian relief to ethnic groups who had been chased out of their villages by ISIS forces that have recently been scoring significant military victories in areas of Iraq controlled by the Kurds. In doing so, he also stated that he had authorized the military to undertake “limited airstrikes” for the purpose of defending those humanitarian airdrops and halting the advance of ISIS forces. This morning, those first airstrikes took place against targets outside of the Iraqi city of Erbil:

WASHINGTON – American warplanes struck Sunni militant positions in northern Iraq on Friday, the Pentagon said in a statement, confirming the first significant American military operation since ground troops left Iraq in 2011.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that two F-18 fighters dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery target near Erbil. Militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil, Admiral Kirby said in a statement.

The strike followed President Obama’s announcement Thursday night that he had authorized limited air strikes to protect American citizens in Erbil and Baghdad, and, if necessary, to break the siege of tens of thousand of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.

“As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities,” Admiral Kirby said, referring to the Islamic militants.

Further details from The Washington Post:

US military jets carried out two airstrikes Friday on Islamist militants outside the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, hours after President Obama authorized attacks against the Sunni extremists advancing on the northern Iraq city.

The F-18 combat aircraft targeted artillery being used by militants of the Islamic State extremist group against Kurdish forces defending Irbil, the Pentagon said. It said the artillery was fired at Kurdish forces “near U.S. personnel.”

The planes dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs at about 6:45 a.m. EDT, said Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

Obama authorized the strikes following the launch of a powerful offensive by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. He also sent US military aircraft to drop food and water to besieged Iraqi civilians in the region.

The US airstrikes hit Islamic State positions in Makhmour, about 35 miles southwest of Irbil, said Mahmood Haji, an official at the Kurdish Interior Ministry. “This is a victory for all the Iraqi people, for the pesh merga, and for America,” he said. “We need these airstrikes to destroy their bases and vehicles so the pesh merga can move forward.” The pesh merga is the Kurdish security force.

In a statement delivered at the White House late Thursday, Obama said the United States would use targeted attacks against extremist convoys “should they move toward” Irbil, where the United States maintains a consulate and a joint operations center with the Iraqi military. “We intend to take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq ... including Irbil and Baghdad,” he said.

Authorization for airdrops – an initial round of which was completed just before Obama spoke – and for airstrikes was a major development in the Iraq crisis that began in June.

A senior administration official described the airstrike authorization Thursday as “narrow” but outlined a number of broad contingencies in which they could be launched, including a possible threat to US personnel in Baghdad from possible breaches in a major dam Islamist forces seized Thursday that could flood the Iraqi capital.

US aircraft also are authorized to launch airstrikes if the military determines that Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are unable to break the siege that has stranded tens of thousands of civilians belonging to the minority Yazidi sect atop a barren mountain outside the northern town of Sinjar.

“As we can provide air support to relieve that pressure, the president has given the military the authority to do so,” the senior official said. He said that congressional leaders had been consulted, but that Obama had the legal authority as commander in chief to launch the strikes to protect U.S. personnel and national security interests.

Viewing this abstractly, there’s nothing per se objectionable about the idea of providing humanitarian relief to the Yazidi, and obviously such a mission requires that the United States military be able to protect itself. At the same time, though, as is always the case with any foreign military action, the real question is just how far the United States is willing to go in this situation, and how far it actually ought to go. For obvious political reasons, the president has been reluctant to get involved in Iraq again, and at least on the surface this does appear to be the limited mission that the White House claims that it is. However, conflicts of this kind have a way of taking on a life of their own. What do we do, for example, if these airstrikes fail to slow the advance of ISIS and the Kurds are unable to stop them? And what if ISIS forces near Baghdad resume the advance on the capital that had largely stopped as they concentrated their efforts on what has seemed to be much easier targets in the north? And what if the Iraqis themselves continue to be unwilling to defend themselves against ISIS, as has been the case up until now with Iraqi Army units that have tended to retreat as ISIS has approached, leaving much of their American-provided equipment behind?

Recommended: How much do you know about US-Iraq relations? Take our quiz.

At the very least, this is unlikely to be a short engagement on the part of the United States. This morning, CBS News White House Correspondent Major Garrett  quoted military sources as characterizing ISIS as “swift, effective, and capable of carrying out military missions with ‘tremendous military proficiency,” and stating that “The Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters have been no match for them. Now, from the air, the US will join the fight. Top advisers predict a long, very long military campaign.”

Along the same lines, the top commander of the (currently small) US military force in Iraq says that “we must neutralize this enemy,” and that ISIS is "not just a violent extremist organization.” “This is an army,” he went on to say, “and it takes an army to defeat an army.” This obviously means that we’re talking about a lot more than just the limited airstrikes that we’ve seen today and that, at some point President Obama, is going to have to decide whether he wants to become the second president in just over a decade to send American combat forces into Iraq, this time in the middle of a civil war that seems likely to tear the country apart before it’s over.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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