WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's new military strategy in Iraq amounts to trying to contain — not destroy — the Islamic militant group that now controls much of the country's northern region. That leaves open the questions of how deeply the United States will be drawn into the sectarian conflict, and whether airstrikes alone can stop the militants' momentum.
Obama insists he will not send American ground troops back to Iraq after having withdrawn them in 2011, fulfilling a campaign promise. Still, even the limited airstrikes against the vicious insurgency show the president's conviction that the U.S. military cannot remain dormant after having fought an eight-year war that temporarily neutralized Sunni extremists, but failed to produce lasting peace.
U.S. military jets dropped food and water to imperiled refugees in northwestern Iraq and launched several airstrikes Friday on isolated targets. Additional airdrops and targeted strikes were thought likely. The next move may be up to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
About three dozen U.S. military trainers and a U.S. consulate are in Irbil, where Kurdish forces are fighting off a militant advance. That's no easy defense.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of ISIS, "They are well organized and they're armed, and they are a significant threat to the stability of Iraq."
Will there be further airstrikes? State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said ISIS must at least halt its advance on Irbil to prevent further strikes.
Iraq has been pleading for months, if not years, for additional U.S. military help to combat the extremists, but the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in part because it couldn't reach an agreement with the government on legal immunity for U.S. troops. Harf said the Obama administration acted now out of concern that "there was a crisis that had the potential to get much worse."
U.S. officials said ISIS in recent days has shown military skill, including using artillery in sophisticated synchronization with other heavy weapons. Their force had overwhelmed not only Iraqi government troops, but also the outgunned Kurdish militia.
The Obama administration steadfastly insists the airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops are not the start of an open-ended campaign to defeat the militants.
The president's critics say his approach is too narrow.
"A policy of containment will not work," Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement. They are among the chief critics of Obama's foreign policy in general, beginning with his decision to stick to the 2011 timetable set by President George W. Bush for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The Islamic militants are "inherently expansionist and must be stopped," the senators said. "The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become."