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U.S. Attacks Iraq Militants as Republicans Urge Expanded Action

By Terry Atlas and David Lerman
August 10, 2014 2:11 PM EDT 205 Comments
Iraqis carry a wounded victim at the scene of a car bomb outside the Shiite Mustafa prayer hall in the southwest of the northern Kurdish controlled Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Photographer: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqis carry a wounded victim at the scene of a car bomb outside the Shiite Mustafa prayer hall in the southwest of the northern Kurdish controlled Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

President Barack Obama’s push for a more inclusive Iraqi government suffered a setback yesterday as the parliament adjourned for a week without breaking a deadlock over who should become the next prime minister.

Before leaving for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard over the weekend, Obama set the formation of a new government in Iraq as a condition for more extensive U.S. assistance in the fight against the Islamic State militants.

“We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there’s not going to be an American military solution to this problem,” Obama told reporters on the White House lawn. “There’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support. And that can’t happen effectively until you have a legitimate Iraqi government.”

Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood

The reaction by the parliament in Baghdad was to adjourn until Aug. 19.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term amid accusations by Kurdish and Sunni politicians, as well as by some former Shiite allies, that he leads a divisive, sectarian government that has fueled support for the al-Qaeda breakaway group known as the Islamic State. The U.S. wants Maliki ousted, without saying so explicitly.

‘His Game’

“Every day that passes strengthens Nouri al-Maliki’s hand,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “His game is to drag things out and demonstrate that nobody else can be prime minister.”

If the U.S. won’t conduct more aggressive attacks against Islamic State militants until a new government is functioning, “then the civil war rages on,” Pollack said. “The president will have less good choices.”

In authorizing airstrikes on Aug. 7, Obama limited the air campaign to two purposes: protecting U.S. personnel in northern Iraq and preventing the mass slaughter of civilians.

In the latest round of strikes yesterday, the U.S. came to the aid of Kurdish forces near Erbil, the regional capital. Using fighter jets and armed drones, the U.S. destroyed several armed trucks and a mortar position held by militants, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, said in a statement.

An earlier round of strikes was aimed at preventing militants from attacking civilians from the minority Yezidi sect near the town of Sinjar.

Yezidis Rescued

About 20,000 Yezidi Iraqis who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar were rescued yesterday and taken to the Syrian-Iraqi border, CNN reported, citing Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights spokesman Kamil Amin.

The Obama administration’s actions drew stepped-up criticism from Republican lawmakers over the weekend. On the Sunday network talk shows they accused the president of acting too little and too late against a widening terrorist threat.

“Mr. President, if you don’t adjust your strategy, these people are coming here,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. forces and respond to a humanitarian crisis are “not a replacement for a strategy to deal with an existential threat to the homeland,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” He was referring to the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

‘Never Solve’

“If you don’t hit them in Syria, you’ll never solve the problem in Iraq,” Graham said.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program that the strikes are “clearly very, very ineffective to say the least,” as Islamic State “continues to make gains everywhere.”

McCain urged airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, sending aid to the Free Syrian Army, better training for the Kurds in Iraq and sending more military equipment to Erbil.

Democrats defended Obama’s more limited military objectives.

“We’re protecting U.S. interests as far as the safety of U.S. personnel in the northern part of Iraq,” Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox. “We’re not going to use our military to take care of what the Iraqis should be taking care of.”

The advances by Islamic State fighters who have taken over much of northern Iraq have been “more rapid” than anticipated by intelligence officials and policy makers in the U.S. and Iraq, Obama said.

Roll Back

The strikes conducted so far aren’t sufficient to roll back Islamic State forces from Iraq, said retired General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army.

“We are containing them in very limited areas,” Keane said on Fox. “To change the nature of this campaign, the president would have to change the orders to the military.”

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 a government that can draw support from Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurdish minority in the north.

“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama said. “This is going to take some time.”

The U.S. envisions an inclusive government draining the Islamic State’s support from moderate Sunnis, who joined the insurgency out of anger at actions taken against them by Maliki and his Shiite allies.

Political Environment

The political environment needs to change in Iraq so that millions of Sunnis “feel connected to and well served by a national government,” Obama said.

That is easier said than done, said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“I think the chances of getting that and getting it immediately is not very good,” Khalilzad said on CNN. Forming a unified government under a new prime minister, even if successful, will take months to achieve.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement yesterday that it has relocated a “limited number of staff members” from the embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil to the consulate in Basra and the Iraq support unit in Amman.

Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, is home to U.S. diplomatic staff and an operations center where American military personnel are advising Iraqi forces.

U.S. aircraft hit Islamic State positions in multiple strikes last week at the start of a sustained campaign to protect American personnel and prevent the massacre of ethnic and religious minorities.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Lerman in Washington at dlerman1@bloomberg.net; Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net; John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net Steve Geimann

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