Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes succeeded Sunday in expelling Islamic State fighters from two northern Iraqi towns, but the developments did little to appease Obama administration critics who say the White House lacks a coherent long-term strategy for beating back the growing al Qaeda-inspired militancy in the war-torn nation.
As the Kurds advanced in northern Iraq, the power struggle in Baghdad intensified as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the country’s newly elected president of engaging in a “coup” by failing to choose a new prime minister by now. The U.S. State Department publicly supported the Iraqi president.
The tempo of the U.S. military operation in northern Iraq increased throughout the weekend. American aircraft dropped food and water for tens of thousands of Yazidi ethnic-religious minorities who have been trapped for more than a week on a mountaintop by fighters from the Islamic State group.
With the humanitarian mission as a backdrop, U.S. fighter jets and drones pounded a range of targets controlled by the extremist Sunni Muslim group that shocked the world in June when its leaders declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
By Sunday afternoon, the U.S. airstrikes appeared to have created an opening for Kurdish militias in the area to retake territory seized by the Islamic State, whose fighters threatened last week to advance on the main Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq.
Irbil has taken on added significance since President Obama dispatched dozens of U.S. advisers there in recent weeks to assess how Washington can bolster Kurdish forces.
Kurdish Brig. Gen. Shirko Fatih told The Associated Press on Sunday that the forces had pushed Islamic State fighters out of the villages of Makhmour and al-Gweir — roughly 25 miles outside Irbil. The advance opened a corridor to a Kurdish-controlled corner through which thousands of Yazidi refugees had begun to flow by Sunday night.
Although it was not immediately clear whether Islamic State fighters were trying to retake the corridor or pulling away from it indefinitely, many saw the development as a positive step toward averting a massacre of the Yazidi refugees.
Uncertainty remained over what will happen next in northern Iraq, where the surging militancy has created a humanitarian crisis and a safe haven for extremists to plan attacks on the wider region and the world.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, said Sunday that the humanitarian mission outlined by the president in recent days is not equal to a coherent strategy for confronting the threat posed by the Islamic State.
“The president made it clear this was to avert the humanitarian crisis and to protect American military personnel,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s not a strategy, that’s not a policy. That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem which is metastasizing as we speak.”
Mr. McCain’s comments followed similar concerns raised Friday by two former Army generals who told The Washington Times that the administration should be doing more to build a muscular counterterrorism campaign focused on containing the threat from the Islamic State.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik told The Times that U.S. airstrikes against artillery and mortar positions held by Islamic State fighters are “necessary but not sufficient” to confront threats posed by the group.
“There needs to be a more comprehensive strategy rooted in the security interests of the United States,” said Gen. Dubik, who oversaw the training of the Iraqi army during the latter part of the U.S. mission, which ended in 2011. “The key security problem facing the U.S. is the creation there of an Islamic state, basically a sanctuary for terrorists — the very sanctuary that we’ve been fighting for 13 years now to prevent.”
But the political jockeying in Baghdad continued.
In a surprise address on Iraqi TV, Mr. al-Maliki, in a last-minute bid for a third term as prime minister, said Sunday night that President Fouad Massoum had committed “a clear constitutional violation” by not naming a new prime minister by Sunday’s deadline. He said he planned to file a legal complaint against the president.
Mr. al-Maliki’s party won the largest share of seats in the parliament, but a parliamentary session to discuss picking a new prime minister has been delayed until Aug. 19.
After Mr. al-Maliki’s accusation, both deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf and Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, the latter on Twitter, said in near-identical terms that the U.S. would continue to support Mr. Massoum and that Iraq needed a new prime minister.
“The United States fully supports President Fuad Masum in his role as guarantor of the Iraqi Constitution. We reaffirm our support for a process to select a Prime Minister who can represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner,” Ms. Harf said.
Ms. Harf went on to say that “a new and inclusive government is the best way to unify the country against [the Islamic State], and to enlist the support of other countries in the region and international community.”
Mr. Obama asserted Thursday that the strikes are part of a “broader strategy that empowers Iraqis” to fight the Islamic State militants on their own, but other military analysts shared Gen. Dubik’s concerns.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, who headed the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command during the early 2000s and later served as the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said that despite the recent deployment of a small number of U.S. advisers to Iraq, the administration has failed to outline how Iraqi forces will be empowered.
The move to begin bombing without a plan for what comes next “shows a lack of strategic vision,” Gen. Dailey said, adding that the administration is likely facing pushback from some of its own senior military advisers.
“This looks like something that’s been dreamed up inside the White House and not dreamed up at U.S. Central Command,” he said.
In a public address Thursday night, Mr. Obama went to lengths to frame his decision in humanitarian terms, driven by a need to deliver supplies to some 40,000 ethnic Iraqi Yazidis trapped by Islamic State fighters in the Sinjar Mountain area.
The fighters also made advances on Irbil, and senior White House aides said Mr. Obama’s authorization of U.S. strikes was mainly a precautionary measure to protect U.S. citizens in the city.
Dozens of officials, mainly from the Pentagon, have been sent to the city over the past month. Although it is uncertain exactly what role the officials are playing, some former military officials said the mission set into motion by the White House in recent days has a solid chance of succeeding from a humanitarian standpoint.
Retired Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command from 2002 to 2006, took part in a similar operation in Iraq 1991, known as Operation Provide Comfort. The Pentagon delivered humanitarian aid to Kurds fleeing northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War without putting a single U.S. soldier on the ground, the general said. Air cover, he said, was critical.
“Deciding to go in and drop food is not that simple,” Gen. Wald said. “You have to have all the backup support capability to do that. And it’s not necessarily people on the ground in this case. It’s an air mission.”
U.S. troops have made three air deliveries on Sinjar Mountain, totaling more than 10,600 gallons of water and 52,000 meals, according to data the Pentagon provided Sunday.
As the humanitarian aid increased over the weekend, so did the number of precision U.S. airstrikes.
U.S. intelligence and military officials have raised concerns that the Islamic State fighters have better military equipment than the Kurdish forces. During an Islamic State surge in northern Iraq in June, the group seized control of U.S.-made tanks and other artillery from fleeing Iraqi military units.
The U.S. airstrikes appear to have targeted that equipment. The strikes commenced Friday with U.S. fighter jets destroying a truck towing mobile artillery, which the Pentagon said Islamic State fighters had been using to attack Kurdish military forces.
Subsequent strikes by armed U.S. drones destroyed Islamic State mortar positions, according to the Pentagon, which said U.S. fighter jets also dropped bombs on a convoy of Islamic State vehicles near Irbil. On Saturday, U.S. fighter jets and drones fired missiles three times at armored personnel carriers and an armed truck being operated by Islamic State fighters, the Pentagon said.
Officials said the tempo of the strikes increased again Sunday when, on five occasions, the U.S. military fired on multiple armed trucks and a mortar position.
Gen. Dailey said: “Air power always has to be augmented with other forms of engagement, whether it’s the evacuation of folks through a secure corridor set up by troops on the ground, or some sort of coalition of troops being set up to achieve that, whether they are Kurdish forces, Turkish forces or Iraqi military forces, or some combination of the three.”
The success of Kurdish forces Sunday suggested that such an approach may well be playing out. But the extent of Washington influence over those forces was not clear.
Heading into the weekend, Gen. Dubik said the evolving U.S. mission in Iraq is destined to struggle until the Obama administration maps out a clear-cut plan to rebuild Iraq’s military, which largely dissolved in the face of the Islamic State surge in June.
The Pentagon has said that about 800 U.S. military personnel are manning two joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil. But the catch, Gen. Dubik said, is that their mission is ill-defined.
“At this point, all that the U.S. advisers are doing is an ‘assessment.’ But they shouldn’t take this long to do an assessment,” he said. “There needs to be a concerted counterterrorism campaign that can be conducted by the Iraqis, with U.S. officials simultaneously helping to organize a counteroffensive against the extremists.”
What’s happening instead, he said, is that the White House is pursuing a “pinprick” approach, focusing on the humanitarian crisis without seriously confronting wider extremist threat.
Some analysts were even more critical Friday.
Bill Roggio, a counterterrorism analyst who edits The Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said “more direct U.S. involvement” than air missions will be needed.
“It probably has to include some U.S. ground forces actively engaging [the Islamic State],” he said. “Without that, anything you’re doing is just not fully dealing with the Islamic State.
“Remember, it took basically two years of concurrent military operations during the late-2000s, with 130,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, along with a then-growing Iraqi military force to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq at the time,” he added.
“Now, despite the administration’s argument that ISIL is brittle — that everyone hates them and they’ll fall apart on their own eventually — I would argue that they’re actually far more formidable right now than al Qaeda in Iraq was in 2006 and 2007,” Mr. Roggio said.
“But the might of the U.S. military is not there to help now,” he said. “So, how do we now think that some humanitarian drops and a few airstrikes are going to beat these guys back?”