The army of Islamist fighters threatening the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil in northern Iraq shows no sign of retreat despite more than a dozen U.S. air strikes on their positions, a top Pentagon official said Monday.
Four more air strikes were carried out on Monday, after a barrage of strikes targeted Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters over the weekend. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is traveling in Australia, said the air strikes have been “very effective, from all the reports that we’ve received on the ground.”
But Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the Joint Staff’s director of operations, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Monday that “these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq or Syria.”
“What we’re going to need is a better understanding of what’s going on,” he said. “I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIL.”
There are currently up to 60 manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft flying over Iraq, monitoring the situation in Irbil and on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Iraqis have been stranded by ISIL fighters for more than a week.
The Iraqi military has been sending reinforcements and ammunition to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in and around Irbil. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. has now begun arming the Kurds, but didn’t say whether it was the Pentagon, the CIA or some other U.S. agency providing the weapons. The U.S. has a consulate in Irbil and set up a joint operations center there as part of their advisory mission to Iraq, which Obama has vowed to protect.
Mayville said future airstrikes are only going to become more difficult as ISIL fighters have already adapted to the U.S. air campaign.
“One of the things that we have seen with the ISIL forces is that where they have been in the open, they are now starting to dissipate and to hide in amongst the people,” Mayville said. “We’re going to do what we need to do to protect our forces, to protect our embassy, to protect our American citizens and to reduce this siege—as well as protect those aircraft that are providing support to Mount Sinjar.”
Tens of thousands of refugees have been stranded on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar for more than a week, including Yazidis who are part of an ethnic and religious sect targeted by ISIL. The U.S., with the help of France and Britain, has helped air drop 85,000 meals ready-to-eat and 20,000 gallons of water to the mountain so far.
As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to fortify Baghdad with troops and tanks on Monday, Iraq’s President Fouad Massoum nominated Haider al-Abadi, a member of the country’s largest political bloc, to replace him.
“The country is now in your hands,” Massoum said in a televised ceremony Monday morning. “I hope you will be successful in forming a broader-based government.”
The move was met with swift support from Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. “Earlier today, Vice President Biden and I called Dr. Abadi to congratulate him and to urge him to form a new cabinet as quickly as possible—one that’s inclusive of all Iraqis, and one that represents all Iraqis,” Obama said Monday in a brief statement from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
“We believe that the government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry said during a stop in Australia on Monday.
But Obama reiterated that the U.S. can’t fix Iraq on its own. “These have been difficult days in Iraq—a country that has faced so many challenges in its recent history. And I’m sure that there will be difficult days ahead,” Obama said Monday. “But just as the United States will remain vigilant against the threat posed to our people by ISIL, we stand ready to partner with Iraq in its fight against these terrorist forces. Without question, that effort will be advanced if Iraqis continue to build on today’s progress, and come together to support a new and inclusive government.”
Stephanie Gaskell contributed to this report.