Obama commits US to long-term involvement in Iraq campaign
No quick fix as lightning jihadist advances force Christian and Yezedis to flee
Barack Obama has committed the US to long-term involvement in Iraq, warning that the rapidly evolving crisis in the north would not be solved quickly.
Conceding that the advance of the Islamic State (formerly Isis) forces had been swifter than anticipated - details emerged yesterday of the jihadists opening another front as they crossed into Lebanon from Syria - the president accepted there was no quick fix. His warning came as the archbishop of Irbil's Chaldean Catholics said fewer than 40 Christians remained in north-western Iraq after a jihadist rampage that has forced thousands to flee from Mosul and the Nineveh plains into Irbil in the Kurdish north.
Archbishop Bashar Warda said: "We did not expect that one day Mosul would be without Christians and that the Nineveh plains would be emptied of minorities," referring to the stretch of land surrounding Mosul that had been hailed throughout the ages as a cradle of civilisation. "Trust is broken between the communities. Especially with the Arabs. For 2,000 years, all these minorities had lived together."
After taking in up to 1.2m refugees since mid-June, the Kurds of northern Iraq are urging Obama not to let up in air strikes against the Islamic State forces, which on Friday were only 50km from Irbil and advancing east towards the Kurdish capital. At least four US air strikes appear to have slowed the momentum of the jihadists, Kurdish peshmerga forces said yesterday.
Officials in Irbil, including Iraq's former foreign minister Hoshyer Zebari, a Kurd who quit his national post in June, urged Obama to continue the strikes. He described the attacks as "a critical decision for Kurdistan, Iraq, and the entire region ... intended to degrade the terrorists' capabilities and achieve strategic gains that have been very effective".
Obama admitted that rebuilding the Iraqi military, fostering trust among Sunnis and negating the threat from jihadists would be a long-term project. He added: "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to take some time."
On Friday, he sanctioned air strikes against Islamic State fighters that destroyed arms and equipment. The military action came less than three years after the last contingent of US troops exited the country.
Meanwhile, British military aircraft joined the US in airdropping food, water and tents to thousands of displaced Iraqis hiding in mountains as Obama revealed that plans were under way to create a "safe corridor" for up to 40,000 civilians - mostly Kurds of the Yezidi faith - who are besieged on Mount Sinjar on the western edge of Kurdistan's border with the rest of Iraq. However, he said rescuing the Yezidis might prove fraught. "Moving them is not simple in this security environment," Obama said.
Speaking shortly before boarding Marine One for his summer holiday, he said humanitarian assistance,including a repeat of airdrops of food and water, would continue.
In London, the British government met again to assess the latest developments in Iraq, discussions that ratified the decision for British aircraft to begin aid drops immediately.
Earlier, two British cargo planes left Oxfordshire to airdrop bottled water, tents and tarpaulins to displaced Iraqis encircled by militants.The C-130 transport aircraft flew from Oxfordshire's Royal Air Force base Brize Norton to deliver aid, with government sources suggesting a repeat of the airdrops could follow today. It followed a second US airdrop of food and water to Iraqis stranded on Mount Sinjar.
The phenomenon of the Islamic State forces and the speed of their advance shows little sign of abating as Lebanese security sources indicated yesterday that Islamist militants had crossed into the country from Syria, triggering a battle with Lebanese villagers who forced them back across the border. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties in the incident, near the Lebanese town of Rashaya, some 60 miles south of the town of Arsal.