WASHINGTON — President Obama said US airstrikes have destroyed militants’ arms and equipment in Iraq, and the US has stepped up assistance to Kurdish forces.
The US military Friday launched three rounds of bombing attacks on Sunni militant positions in northern Iraq, killing an undisclosed number of militants and igniting a vigorous debate about how much the United States should reengage militarily nearly three years after the last American troops were withdrawn.
Just hours after President Obama said Thursday that he had authorized airstrikes, two Navy fighter jets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery unit near Erbil, according to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon said late Friday night the US conducted a second airdrop of food and water to Iraqi refugees, according to the Associated Press.
That attack was followed by a drone bombing that struck a mortar position and, several minutes later, another such strike that the Pentagon said “successfully eliminated” a number of Sunni militants. A third airstrike was launched by four Navy fighter jets that twice circled past a convoy of seven ISIS vehicles, dropping a total of eight laser-guided bombs and successfully “neutralizing the mortar and convoy,” the Pentagon said.
All of Friday’s missions were aimed at targets near Erbil, where the United States has a consulate and personnel.
The strikes revived memories of the conflict Obama sought to leave behind in 2011 when he withdrew the last of US troops amid hopes that Iraq would gradually resolve its own domestic divisions. But the region has been riven by sectarian violence, with the sudden emergence this year of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a radical movement that seeks to establish a fundamentalist caliphate across the region.
The administration’s stated reason for Friday’s airstrikes was to protect American personnel in the area and to alleviate pressure on tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been pushed to a barren mountaintop by ISIS militants. US officials have not said how long the strikes might last.
The initial attacks, with their limited scope and rationale, drew broad support in Congress, but debate quickly emerged about overall strategy and mission. Lawmakers expressed concern about returning to a fight in Iraq that many viewed as a quagmire, with a heavy toll in lost US lives, drained resources, and sapped prestige.
But others urged the administration to use the opportunity to fight back against ISIS rebels, who have made startling gains in Iraq and Syria.
Members of Congress also insisted that expanding the conflict in new ways would require consultations with lawmakers.
“We’re all concerned about whatever slippery slope these actions might portend,” said Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell and member of the House Armed Services Committee who said Congress should be asked to vote on the mission if it is expanded. “The need to protect US personnel in Iraq should be very narrowly construed.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, on Friday said she was generally supportive of the “limited, targeted actions” but expressed concern about any prolonged mission.
“It is critical that we not get pulled into a war in Iraq,” she told reporters as she was leaving a meeting at the Massachusetts State House. “It’s a very complicated situation in Iraq. The president now has taken very targeted actions, and those actions will change the mix of what’s happening in Iraq.’’
US Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, also urged caution, saying, “What’s needed is an Iraqi political solution, not an American military solution.”
But other top Democrats took a more forceful stance, encouraging Obama to deal a crippling blow to ISIS, which is also known as ISIL.
“It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront ISIL now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Inaction is no longer an option.”
The president is still planning to leave Washington on Saturday morning for his annual vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as to hold a fund-raiser on the island Monday, the White House said.
“The president will be traveling to Massachusetts with an array of communications equipment and national security advisers and others to ensure that he has the capacity to make the kinds of decisions that are required for the commander-in-chief,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a daily briefing Friday. “If there is a need for the president to return to the White House, it’s not a long flight from Martha’s Vineyard back to Washington, D.C.”
Obama’s authorization of military strikes marked an escalation of the recent US strategy for dealing with Iraq. In June, Obama began dispatching 700 US troops as the country was gripped in sectarian conflict and ISIS was expanding its reach. The troops were sent to help Iraqi forces as well as to protect US assets and personnel in Baghdad, site of the US Embassy, and Erbil, which houses a consulate.
Obama has continued to maintain that he will not send ground troops back to Iraq.
“I know many of you are concerned about any military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” he said late Thursday night in a national address. “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
For weeks, the United States has been hoping Iraqi leaders in Baghdad could develop a coalition and provide a political solution to sectarian divides. But that strategy was beset by the threat of an ISIS incursion into the northern Kurdish region, continued inaction by Baghdad leaders, and calls for humanitarian assistance for groups that have been fleeing ISIS forces.
Great Britain, a reliable ally that joined US forces in the Iraq invasion a decade ago, said Friday it would not join the American military actions, although it would help with humanitarian assistance.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered US commercial airplanes not to fly over Iraqi airspace. Pope Francis announced he was sending a cardinal to Iraq to provide support to the thousands of Christians fleeing the ISIS threat.
Leaders of ISIS, meanwhile, taunted the United States.
“Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones,” ISIS spokesman Abu Mosa told journalist Medyan Dairieh, who embedded with the group for three weeks to make a documentary for Vice News. “Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah at the White House.”
Republicans were supportive of the military strikes, but they criticized Obama for not acting sooner. Members of the GOP, joined by some Democrats, also expressed concern that the president had not articulated a long-term plan.
“I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “Vital national interests are at stake, yet the White House has remained disengaged despite warnings from Iraqi leaders, Congress, and even members of its own administration. Such parochial thinking only emboldens the enemy and squanders the sacrifices Americans have made.”
Members of the Massachusetts delegation, which has long had misgivings about military action in Iraq, seemed torn about the president’s decision. They supported the humanitarian effort to assist the tens of thousands of Iraqis who fled to a mountaintop to escape ISIS militants and are now trapped with little food or water, while warning against any expansion of the mission.
“I am concerned that we are already seeing these different missions blur into one in the press and in Congress,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who voted against the war in Iraq and has been a frequent skeptic of military force.
Representative Joseph Kennedy III, a Brookline Democrat, said, “Airstrikes are not a long-term strategy to combat ISIL’s horrifying campaign of violence and oppression.’’ He called on Obama to consult with Congress if he envisions long-term involvement.
Representative Richard Neal, a Democrat from Springfield, said that he supported the mission, which “will not put any US boots on the ground in Iraq.”