President Obama / Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - When President Obama breaks from his vacation Sunday to return to the White House, one of the decisions he faces is the direction of the Iraq military campaign now focused on a militant group that could pose a global terrorist threat.
What started as a two-pronged mission - protect U.S. personnel and religious minorities threatened in Iraq - is evolving into efforts to stop militants known as the Islamic State or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Obama and aides say they plan to maintain airstrikes while preparing Kurdish and Iraqi forces to battle the group with help from European allies.
"We will continue airstrikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq," Obama said Thursday. "We have increased the delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL on the front lines."
When the operation began earlier this month, the Islamic State had trapped up to 40,000 members of a religious minority on top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets and a coordinated humanitarian aid campaign with Great Britain helped relieve the siege and enable the refugees to escape. That eliminated the need for a large-scale evacuation led by U.S. forces, Obama said Thursday.
Future airstrikes against the Islamic State could last for weeks - or months - and will depend on a continued, ongoing assessment of the threat they pose to Iraq and the region.
"The situation remains dire for Iraqis subjected to ISIL's terror throughout the country," Obama said. "This includes minorities like Yazidis and Iraqi Christians; it also includes Sunnis, Shia and Kurds."
Obama also said the United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis.
The president, who has been vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is scheduled to return to the White House from Sunday to Tuesday for meetings that include national security briefings.
Even if airstrikes and local military forces are somehow able to push the militants out of Iraq, there is still a problem: The Islamic State's initial base is in Syria, whose government the United States is trying to overthrow.
The administration also plans to continue pressuring officials in Baghdad to form a new national Iraq government, one that addresses the nation's sectarian disputes so that it can better supervise effective defense forces.
Obama and Vice President Biden spoke by phone this week with Iraq's new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi. The White House said that Obama and al-Abadi discussed ways "to strengthen the Iraqi Security Forces in order to effectively and sustainably counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant."
Diplomatically, the United States is trying to get other countries to realize the terrorist threat that the jihadist group poses and contribute to efforts to roll it back.
Obama has said his overall goal is not to send U.S. combat troops back to Iraq.
The United States will work "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.
Iraq and the threat from the Islamic State pose an "incredibly complex" set of dynamics, said Sam Brannen, who worked at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. He is now a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Strategy has to be revised on almost an hourly basis."
The formation of a new Iraq government - one that represents Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds - is the key to U.S. plans, said Douglas Ollivant, former director for Iraq at the National Security Council. Al-Abadi is in the process of putting that government together.
If the Iraqis are to ultimately push ISIL militants out of the country, "it's got to be all three of these groups working together, said Ollivant, a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation. (He is also senior vice president of Mantid International, a consulting firm with business interests in the region.)
Facing what could be a long-term battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and some allies have begun arming Kurdish forces.
The Kurds are the dominant sect in northern Iraq, and in the past, officials have been reluctant to arm them because of concerns they may try to form their own country. That could create problems elsewhere in the region; neighboring Turkey, for one, has expressed opposition to a Kurdish state because of the large number of Kurds living in Turkey.
The United States is also urging help from European allies, warning that an ISIL ensconced in northern Iraq poses a terrorist threat to them as well as the United States.
Allies are responding. France, which opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has agreed to supply arms to the Kurds. Germany, another opponent of the Iraq War, has sent aid supplies to northern Iraq and is also considering military equipment.
Great Britain, a backer of the Iraq invasion 11 years ago, provided help to the humanitarian mission on Mount Sinjar, and British planes are transporting munitions to Kurdish forces.
In a phone call last weekend, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron "discussed efforts to counter the threat posed by ISIL against all Iraqis," a White House statement said.
The White House also said that, in another call, Obama and French President Francois Hollande "agreed to work together on a longer-term strategy to counter ISIL."
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