WASHINGTON — Laying the groundwork for an extended airstrike campaign against Sunni militants in Iraq, President Barack Obama said Saturday that the strikes that had begun the day before could continue for months as the Iraqis build a new government.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama told reporters before leaving for a two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. “This is going to be a long-term project.”
The president repeated his insistence that the United States would not send ground combat troops back to Iraq. But he pledged that the United States and other countries would stand with Iraqi leaders against the militants if those leaders build an inclusive government in the months ahead.
Hours before Obama spoke, Sunni militants in northern Iraq ordered engineers to return to work on the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, suggesting that the extremists who captured the dam last week after fierce battles with Kurdish forces will use it, at least for now, to provide water and electricity to the areas they control, and not as a weapon.
Prompted by the seizure of the dam by the group known as the Islamic State, along with the dire circumstances of tens of thousands of civilians stranded in the mountains near Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq, Obama quickly ordered airdrops of humanitarian aid and airstrikes on militant positions near the Kurdish capital, Irbil.
As the Islamic State consolidates its control of territory, it has acted brutally, carrying out executions and forcing out minority groups. But it has also displayed an intent to act strategically when it comes to natural resources, highlighted by the call on Saturday for engineers on the dam to get back to work.
The group’s control over the dam, however, also gives the group the ability to create a civilian catastrophe: A break in the fragile dam could unleash a tidal wave over the city of Mosul and cause flooding and countless deaths along the Tigris River south to Baghdad and beyond, experts have said.
The Islamic State order came as residents in Mosul reported that nearly two dozen bodies of Islamic State fighters, said to have been killed in the U.S. airstrikes, arrived at the city’s morgue, while at least 30 wounded fighters were being treated at a hospital.
In Baghdad, efforts by leaders to name a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, stalled, with rivals unable to decide on an alternative. A session of Parliament scheduled for Sunday — when leaders had been expected to nominate a new prime minister — was postponed until Monday.