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Obama Won’t Set Timetable for Iraq as Airstrikes, Humanitarian Aid Continue

Obama Won’t Set Timetable for Iraq as Airstrikes, Humanitarian Aid Continue

This story has been updated.

President Barack Obama sought to manage expectations about the new American involvement in Iraq, saying that it will take more than weeks to "solve this problem," and setting the stage for an open-ended but still limited role for the U.S. military there.

"This is going to be a long-term project," Obama said on the White House North Lawn Saturday morning as he reiterated that American combat troops would not be deployed to conduct ground operations there. 

In the meantime, as U.S. forces conduct humanitarian operations and airstrikes to protect American military personnel and citizens in northern Iraq, what’s important, Obama said, is for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to reach a political settlement to allow all Iraqis to feel a part of the government. That, he said, is a "long-term campaign."

"We can help, we can advise, but we can’t do it for them, and the U.S. military cannot do it for them," Obama said. 

Still, Obama seemed to indicate that the airstrikes, military assistance and humanitarian aid mission that began Thursday would not be over anytime soon. The commander-in-chief said he would not set a timetable for ending U.S. engagement there.

Obama spoke just minutes before boarding a jet bound for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on his way to a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s expected to be monitoring the situation closely over the next several days. 

The U.S. military conducted two rounds of airstrikes Friday near the Kurdish capital of Erbil, using Predator drones and Navy F/A-18 fighter jets to destroy Sunni militant positions, including an artillery battery militants were using to shell Kurdish forces, as well as a convoy of vehicles belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The Pentagon also announced early Saturday that the military had conducted a second drop of humanitarian supplies for the thousands of Iraqi citizens stranded on Mount Sinjar. In all, more than 130 bundles of water and food have been dropped for the thousands of displaced Iraqis starving and thirsty, who have taken refuge on the mountain. Obama said he hopes to create a "safe corridor" to allow some of those refugees to move out of the area, but he conceded it would take some time. 

In a short exchange with reporters outside the White House on Saturday, the President was asked if he regretted removing all combat troops from Iraq in 2011, as he ultimately expects to do in Afghanistan. Obama explained that bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq was the result of the failure of the Iraqi government at the time to agree to security protections that would have allowed those troops to stay – not a decision made by the White House. Critics of the administration believe Obama, who staked his 2008 campaign on ending the war in Iraq, never wanted troops to remain there anyway, despite the fact that on the surface, it was the Iraqi government who refused the deal.

"Let’s just be clear," Obama said. "The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were – a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically, they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq. 

Obama said that if American troops had remained, he would have had "a much bigger job" protecting them today. "So the entire analysis is bogus and is wrong," he said.

Military officials have said the airstrikes underway over the last two days will likely continue for the next several days at the very least. Although Obama’s broader strategy remains unclear for now, those airstrikes seek both to contain ISIS’ advance and to protect Erbil from falling, as well as to protect American military personnel there and in the region.

Indeed, after first signing orders to deploy American troops to Iraq this June to assess the Iraqi security forces, Obama, in justifying the airstrikes, has relied heavily on the rationale that he must now protect them and other American citizens and interests in the region. There are more than 800 military personnel in Iraq who arrived under three separate deployments since June. That includes about 90 advisors who conducted the assessment, another 150 assigned to two "joint operation centers," one in Erbil, one in Baghdad, and about 450 additional security troops. One hundred military personnel assigned to the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad were already in Iraq. 

Obama’s return to Iraq this week — the airstrikes are the first since before U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011 – was a significant development in the President’s Iraq strategy. But the White House insists the scope of the mission remains limited, allowing it to enjoy, for now,  bipartisan support from members of Congress who oversee national security and defense policy.

"The President’s decision to use force in Iraq was appropriate given the circumstances," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "We must all understand that ISIS threatens both the Iraqi people and poses a clear and present danger to the United States."

The most senior Democrats serving on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees also offered their support. "In this case, the U.S. military has the ability and the capability to confront ISIS, protect an innocent population under threat of genocide and provide some relief," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). "I applaud the administration for taking this opportunity."

While Congress is likely to be broadly supportive of a limited strike, the president will be exposed to criticism from anti-war liberals and some libertarian Republicans.

On Thursday the United States began dropping food aid to stranded religious minorities in northern Iraq. As many as 40,000 Yazidi refugees are trapped on the Sinjar mountain and they are slowly running out of food and water. Defense officials said Thursday’s humanitarian mission was conducted from a number of air bases within the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" and included one C-17 jet and two C-130 cargo jets. The two dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The cargo jets were accompanied by two F/A-18s and the mission did not require U.S. ground troops, according to the Pentagon.

The C-17 jet dropped 40 "bundles" of fresh drinking water and a C-130 dropped 16 additional bundles, totaling 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water. Another C-130 dropped another 16 bundles, totaling 8,000 meals ready-to-eat, or MREs. The airplanes spent about 15 minutes over the area, at a low altitude, according to the Pentagon.

The amount of supplies already dropped, however, only amount to food and water for about 16,000 people. Administration officials indicated they expected there to be more humanitarian relief supplies dropped in coming days. 

Residents of Iraq’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, which is home to some 50,000 followers, fled as the Sunni militants advanced toward Erbil, targeting Iraq’s religious minorities along the way.

"ISIL has called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," Obama said Thursday night.

Obama on Saturday said he spoke with both British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francoise Hollande, both of whom expressed continued support the humanitarian operation.

On Thursday night, the United Nations Security Council condemned the assault and called for an international response. The council noted that the atrocities could be crimes against humanity. Britain, which holds the presidency of the Security Council for August, issued a statement from Cameron supporting the American action.

"I welcome President Obama’s decision to accept the Iraqi government’s request for help and to conduct targeted U.S. airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces as they fight back against ISIL terrorists to free the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar," Cameron stated.

The Islamic State also captured Iraq’s largest dam on Thursday, the Mosul dam on the Tigris River, which could lead to more U.S. airstrikes intended to protect the massive structure in Mosul which, if militants destroyed, would send a catastrophically large wall of water downriver.

"I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world," Obama said Thursday in explaining his rationale for taking action. "So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.

"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide," he continued. "That’s what we’re doing on that mountain."

Obama’s red line for Iraq is no ground operations. Of course if the troops must protect themselves for any reason and get into a shooting fight with Islamic militants, this quickly could become an issue of semantics for the American public.

"We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against [ISIS] here," a senior administration official told reporters late Thursday in a briefing, reiterating a point Obama made earlier in the night.

Troops assigned to the joint operation centers are coordinating airstrikes and other operations but they are not "calling in airstrikes," a Defense official said. That would require them to essentially be in combat. "Yes, they are providing input into which positions to take out," the official said, "but they are not calling in airstrikes." 

Despite the actions he authorized, Obama ended his remarks by noting that in the long term, Iraq’s people will have to sort out then unstable political situation themselves.

"There is no American military solution to the larger problem in Iraq," Obama said.

U.N. officials estimate that there are as many as 200,000 new refugees seeking safety in Iraq’s Kurdish north. The Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar, the Yazidis‘ ancestral home some 75 miles west of Mosul, on Sunday as part of this wider offensive, causing the city’s inhabitants to flee into the mountains. Unlike Christians, who are often given the choice of converting or paying a tax to save their lives, the Islamic State has killed the Yazidis by the hundreds, sometimes taking them as slaves.

John Hudson and Thomas Stackpole contributed to this report.