Iraq Airstrikes May Continue for Months, Obama Says
WASHINGTON — President Obama said on Saturday that the airstrikes and humanitarian assistance drops he ordered last week in Iraq could go on for months, preparing Americans for an extended military presence in the skies there as Iraq’s leaders try to build a new government.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Mr. Obama told reporters before leaving for a two-week golf-and-beach vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. “This is going to be a long-term project.”
The president repeated his insistence that his administration would not send ground troops back to Iraq after ending an unpopular, decade-long war and withdrawing the last troops in 2011. But two days after emphasizing the limited scope of the mission in a White House address, he pledged that the United States would stand with Iraq if it could form a unified and inclusive government to counter the Sunni militants who threaten its future.
“Changing that environment so that the millions of Sunnis who live in these areas feel connected to and well served by a national government, that’s a long-term process,” he said during a lengthy departure statement on the White House lawn during which he took several questions from reporters.
The American military continued striking militants in Iraq on Saturday, with jet fighters and drones conducting four attacks that military officers said were designed to defend Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority.
In a statement issued late Saturday, the military’s Central Command said American fighters and drones first hit one of two armored personnel carriers that fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were using to fire on civilians near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq. In follow-up strikes, American aircraft hit three more ISIS armored personnel carriers and a truck with weapons, the statement said. All of the aircraft returned safely.
The president’s assessment of the campaign’s duration came as ISIS militants began advancing along a main road up Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis remained trapped. In Mosul, residents reported that nearly two dozen bodies of ISIS fighters, said to have been killed in American airstrikes, had arrived at the city’s morgue, while at least 30 wounded fighters were being treated at a hospital.
A significant number of Yazidis were said to be fleeing from the mountain toward Syria, according to two American officials and Yazidi refugees along the border. With American military confirmation that American warplanes had carried out attacks Saturday on ISIS forces shooting at the Yazidis, it appeared that a way off the mountain had opened for at least some. A number of the civilians appeared to still be on the mountain, and the situation remained desperate, American officials said.
Some Yazidis have cellphones and have been in regular touch with American officials as they try to escape.
It is estimated that 5,000 to 12,000 Yazidis fled Mount Sinjar on Saturday and more were expected on Sunday, according to one American official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing internal information. The Yazidis have been fleeing by car as well as on foot, the official said, and many were said to be dying along the way.