WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Thursday promised to expand U.S. humanitarian relief to Iraqis threatened by the advancing army of the Islamic State militants. He took credit for alleviating the genocide threat to thousands trapped on a mountaintop but said the situation “remains dire” throughout the country.
Obama also said U.S. airstrikes would continue to protect Americans and U.S. facilities in Iraq, and he said Washington has increased its delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State.
But he gave no indication he intends to shift from the limited, defensive military campaign he announced last week to one designed to use American might to push back and eventually defeat an emboldened Islamic State army, which has made rapid and broad advances across western and northern Iraq since June.
“We’re going to be working with our international partners to provide humanitarian assistance to those who are suffering in northern Iraq wherever we have capabilities and we can carry out effective missions like the one we carried out on Mount Sinjar without committing combat troops on the ground,” Obama said in a statement.
His remarks highlighted the gap between the administration’s increasingly dire assessment of the threat posed by the Islamic State group and the limited air campaign it has so far undertaken, which military officials acknowledge has had only a temporary, local effect and is not likely to blunt the group’s momentum or ambitions.
On Thursday, some of the most senior U.S. intelligence experts on terrorism briefed reporters in detail on the Islamic State group. They described a battle-hardened, well-funded terrorist organization that is bent on governing the territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq while also encouraging attacks in Europe and the United States.
“We assess that the group probably sees conflict with the United States as inevitable,” one of the officials said, speaking, as the others did, under ground rules that he not be identified.
Obama has said little about the potential external terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State militants, but he has been emphatic in his position that there is no American military solution to the insurgent threat facing Iraq. He has pushed for Iraqis to establish an inclusive government that represents the interests of each of the major sectarian factions – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – and gives more motivation for Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgents.
The Iraqi political process was given an apparent boost Thursday when Iraqi state television reported that Nouri al-Maliki had given up his post as prime minister to Haider al-Abadi. That was a move favored by Washington.
The Islamic State group has its roots in another group known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which survived years of U.S. operations that diminished but didn’t defeat it. Nearly all of the Islamic State’s leaders were at one point in American custody during the Iraq war, the officials said.
U.S. intelligence has concluded that even a new government in Iraq would need “external help” to make gains against the group and that neutralizing the Islamic State group would be unlikely without addressing its safe haven in Syria, where it has a headquarters. The Islamic State has access to oil revenues and other income sources worth several hundred million dollars a year, the officials said.
The officials said they still were unfamiliar with the structure of the organization and its total numbers, though U.S. officials have estimated the group is about 15,000 strong.
Critics say the administration is only putting off the day when the U.S. will have to directly confront the Islamic State group, whose forces surprised and impressed U.S. officials with the speed and proficiency with which they overran Iraqi government forces at such strategic points as Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.
A U.S. intelligence official said a few hundred fighters from the group chased away a force of 50,000 to seize Mosul.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said last month he would present Obama with a long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but officials have not described it. Even the nature and scope of further U.S. humanitarian relief missions in Iraq is unclear, but limited airstrikes continue.
The U.S. military said a mix of fighters and drone aircraft attacked two of the Islamic group’s armed vehicles and a U.S.-made troop carrier, near the city of Irbil. U.S. Central Command said the two armed vehicles were attacked after they fired on Kurdish forces, and moments later the troop carrier was hit near the site of the two previous strikes. The Islamic fighters have been operating U.S.-made equipment they captured from Iraqi army forces.
The humanitarian crisis is “not bounded necessarily by geography” or the number of Iraqis in crisis, according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary. “I can’t give you a menu that says here is exactly what would require (U.S.) action. What I would tell you is, we’re not taking our eye off the ball in terms of humanitarian suffering in Iraq. And nobody’s doing high-fives here at the Pentagon” because of the improved situation on Mount Sinjar.
“We understand that there continues to be human suffering in Iraq,” he said.
Obama said no emergency evacuation on Mount Sinjar is now needed, and he said it is unlikely the U.S. military will continue to airdrop food and water there.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been driven from their homes since June as the militants seized swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq.
A U.S. military and civilian team of 16 people spent Wednesday atop Mount Sinjar to assess conditions and see how many Iraqis needed to be evacuated. They reported that the number of trapped Iraqis was far fewer than anticipated and that U.S.-supplied food and water had reached many of those in need in recent days.
Kirby said they estimated that 4,000-5,000 Iraqis remained atop Sinjar, of which as many as 2,000 are locals who don’t want to leave.
Obama said the U.S. had delivered 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water to the Iraqis there over the past week. They had faced with almost certain death at the hands of the Islamic State group if they descended the mountain and possible starvation if they stayed atop Sinjar.
“The bottom line is, is that the situation on the mountain has greatly improved and Americans should be very proud of our efforts,” Obama said, speaking from his vacation spot in Edgartown, Mass. “We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives.”
ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the former name of the Islamic State group.
Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters at the U.N. by phone from Dahuk City in northern Iraq that he spent Thursday afternoon at the Pesh Kabur crossing talking to people coming down from Mount Sinjar.
“The crisis on the mountain will not be over until everybody is able to come off that mountain to a safe and secure location in a safe and secure manner,” Dwyer said. “We can say with 100 percent clarity that nobody went up to that mountain because they really wanted to. They fled for their lives.”