TIME Iraq

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Likely Next Leader, Has the World’s Toughest Job

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,
Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014, Iraqi Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images

With divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepping down, Iraq looks to a new leader. But can he knit his country back together?

Few in Iraq this morning were mourning the loss of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down Thursday night after months of domestic and international pressure.

“We are thirsty for change. We had this government since 2003 and still it’s not united. We want someone now who can unite Iraq,” said Ammar Al-Jaf, watching al-Maliki’s resignation re-run on television in his barbershop in Erbil. A Sunni who grew up in Baghdad, like many here, he says al-Maliki favored his own Shiite—sect and in so doing deepened divisions between the people of Iraq.

Even in refugee camps, filled with Iraqis who fled the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) in June, there were calls for al-Maliki to step down. Many displaced Iraqis said they fled because they feared being caught up in battles between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, but still preferred the rule of the Islamist militants to al-Maliki’s Shiite-first agenda.

File photo of Haider Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad
Haider al-Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad in July 2014. Ahmed Saad—Reuters

The hope now is that Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker and the man named to replace al-Maliki, will be able to bring Iraq’s divided political factions together. “Al-Abadi promised to support dialogue with the Sunnis and said that he will consult Kurdish and Sunni factions,” said Sarmad al-Taee an Iraqi journalist and commentator. He argues that al-Maliki ran Iraq and his own Al-Dawa party with orders rather than discourse, alienating Kurds, Sunni and eventually his own Shiite sect.

This feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis may have helped ISIS claim, and hold, swathes of Iraqi territory. The well-armed Sunni tribes of Nineveh province and west to the Syrian border could have turned the tide against ISIS, but there was little incentive to fight for a government they felt has sidelined their needs for years. On top of that, many Sunnis and Kurds argue al-Maliki stacked what should have been a non-partisan, non-sectarian army with politically appointed, often Shiite commanders, turning the Iraqi national forces in to his own private militia. That army proved weak and thousands of Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons and fled in June as ISIS fighters approached.

“In every country the military should be separate from the government,” said Al-Jaf. “But al-Maliki used the military to serve himself. The army should serve the country and the people. He filled all the military’s with high positions from his family.”

Now, there is heavy pressure from inside Iraq, regional leaders and the U.S. to dismantle the sectarianism that has fractured the country and left it vulnerable to ISIS. Al-Taee, who is from Basra, says many Shiite leaders now understand this and will push for more inclusive politics under the new government. “If al-Abadi doesn’t do this he will be considered weak and the other party leaders will sack him,” he said, noting that a failure on this front could cause the international community to withdraw diplomatic and military support. “The Shiites now know the importance of dialogue and they don’t want to make the same mistake as before.”

But it may be too late. The mistakes by al-Maliki’s government have further exacerbated the divisions in an already fractured country and may have made the disintegration of Iraq all but inevitable. Many here now talk of dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Since the start of the crisis with ISIS sectarian calls to arms have intensified on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. The task ahead for al-Abadi will not be an easy one.

“If he can build a strong Iraq and share equally with all the people of Iraq, the people will support him and we can defeat ISIS,” said Irfan Ali, an engineer from Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Getting the Sunni masses and tribes back on board for a national government will be key. But even if the Sunnis give their support, Shiites and Kurds may be hesitant to provide them with arms to fight ISIS—worried about where those guns will be pointed once the militants are defeated.

For their part, the Kurds have kept their distance with the central government, and are now engaged with ISIS themselves. They have been in conflict with Baghdad for months over power sharing and oil exports resulting in the central government halting transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in January. “We have been clear that we are not just looking for a change in the faces in the government,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “We want a change in the power sharing arrangement and a more inclusive government.”

Amid the chaos created by the ISIS invasion, the Kurds have managed to secure contested territories, such as Kirkuk, and have inched closer to independence. Last month, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he will hold a referendum on Kurdish sovereignty, a decades-old goal of the Kurdish people.

It’s not clear what a new prime minister could offer the Sunnis and Kurds to bring them back into the political fold with Baghdad. But leaders in Iraq seem hopeful, though cautious. “This is the start of process,” said Bakir. “But we need to wait and see. We shouldn’t be too optimistic.”

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki Steps Down, Gives Up Post to Rival

Embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki caved to international pressure and gave up his post to Haider al-Abadi

(BAGHDAD) — Iraq’s embattled Nouri al-Maliki has stepped down as prime minister, caving in to international and domestic pressure to give up his post to a rival politician.

The move defuses a political deadlock that has plunged Iraq into uncertainty and opens way for the formation of a new government that could take on a growing insurgency by Sunni militants that has engulfed much of the country.

Al-Maliki made the announcement on national television late Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Islamic Dawa Party, including rival Haider al-Abadi. He said he was stepping aside in favor of his “brother,” in order to “facilitate the political process and government formation.”

The premier-designate al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians. The country’s major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army seems unable to regain territory in the north and west taken by militants from the Islamic State group.

Al-Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolizing power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that has alienated the Sunni minority.

The United States, the U.N. and a broad array of political factions in Iraq had backed al-Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from the Islamic State extremists who have captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.

Al-Maliki said his decision reflected a desire to “safeguard the high interests of the country,” adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed.

His refusal to give up the post after eight years in power had provoked a political crisis that escalated this week in Baghdad. The pressure intensified when his Shiite political alliance backed al-Abadi to replace him, and President Fouad Massoum nominated al-Abadi on Monday to form the next government. Al-Maliki threatened legal action against the president for what he said was a violation of the constitution.

But in a meeting of his party earlier Thursday, al-Maliki agreed to endorse al-Abadi, two senior lawmakers from his State of Law parliamentary bloc — Hussein al-Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad — told The Associated Press. The two said al-Maliki also agreed to drop a suit before the constitutional court challenging al-Abadi’s nomination.

The White House commended al-Maliki’s move and expressed hope that the power shift “can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people” against the threat from Islamic militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move “sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq.”

Al-Maliki had grown increasingly isolated as he was deserted not only by his Shiite allies but also top ally Iran, the United States and the U.N. backed al-Abadi, who has 30 days to put together a Cabinet for parliament’s approval.

The U.N. Security Council urged al-Abadi to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.”

Iraqis of all sects welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

“Now, all we want is a government that respects the people and does not discriminate against them,” said Youssef Ibrahim, 40, a Sunni government employee in Baghdad.

Adnan Hussein, 45, a Shiite in Sadr City, said he believes al-Maliki is to blame for much of Iraq’s troubles. “The years he ruled were the worst in Iraq’s history and he bears that responsibility,” Hussein said.

The U.S. and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that will ease anger among Sunnis, who felt marginalized by al-Maliki’s administration, which helped fuel the dramatic sweep by the Islamic State extremist group.

The militants’ lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq since June has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and last week prompted the U.S. to launch aid operations and airstrikes as the militants threatened religious minorities and the largely autonomous Kurdish region.

The U.N. on Wednesday declared the situation in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” — a decision that came after some 45,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority were able to escape from a remote desert mountaintop where they had been encircled by Islamic State fighters, who view them as apostates and had vowed to kill any who did not convert to Islam.

The U.N. said it would provide increased support to the Yazidis and to 400,000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. A total of 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions.

The European Union’s foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting Friday on Iraq to coordinate their stance on military support for the Kurds and on providing humanitarian assistance for those fleeing the fighting.

___

Abdul-Zahra reported from Boston. Associated Press writers Vivian Salama, Sinan Salaheddin and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad, Elaine Ganley in Paris, and Robert Burns and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Middle East

Iraq’s Embattled Prime Minister Agrees to Step Down

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq on December 3, 2011.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad on Dec. 3, 2011 Hadi Mizban—AP

A successor had been nominated earlier this week

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Thursday evening that he would support the man nominated to replace him and step down, according to a report that cited state television, marking an apparent end to weeks of political uncertainty that threatened to consume the country as it battles extremists in the north.

The Associated Press reports Maliki announced in a televised address that he was leaving the post with an aim to preserve Iraq’s “unity” and had withdrawn his legal complaint against his replacement’s nomination, paving the way for Haider al-Abadi to assume the role and form an inclusive government. Al-Maliki had initially remained defiant after Iraqi President Fouad Massoum tapped al-Abadi to succeed him earlier in the week, insisting he deserved a third term, raising the specter that he would use his entrenched Shi‘ite supporters to forcefully oppose the move.

He planned to pursue his bid in the courts to retain power as recently as Wednesday, but was coming under growing pressure to relent, including from other Shi‘ite leaders and from the U.S. For weeks, al-Maliki has come under fire for failing to stem the incursion of Islamist militants from over the border with Syria. The Sunni extremists, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, have seized a large swath of northern Iraq with such fury that the U.S. was compelled to intervene with targeted air strikes and humanitarian aid drops for a threatened Yezidi minority.

The U.S. has pushed for a more inclusive government amid criticism that al-Maliki had marginalized Iraq’s Sunni population and opened the door for the militants’ lightning offensive that began in mid-June.

TIME Iraq

Iraqi State TV: Nouri al-Maliki Has Given Up Prime Minister Post

(BAGHDAD) — Iraqi state TV: Nouri al-Maliki has given up the post of prime minister to Haider al-Abadi.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 14

1. Born of the war on terror, militarized civilian police forces have impacted civil rights and citizens’ lives.

By Alex Kane at BillMoyers.com

2. Turkey is finally in a position to carry some weight in Iraq – if President Erdogan keeps his promises.

By Josh Walker in War on the Rocks

3. A new bill forcing schools to collect and share hard data on sexual assault can reveal the scale and shed much-needed light on this epidemic.

By Anna Bahr in the Upshot

4. Summer jobs for American youth will soon be a thing of the past. So will the work ethic and skills training that summer jobs once ensured.

By Ben Cassleman in FiveThirtyEight

5. It may seem like the world is tearing itself apart, but when peacekeepers can be deployed to troublespots, their track record is very good.

By Roland Paris in Political Violence at a Glance

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME foreign affairs

Why Kurdish Independence Is the Only Solution for the World

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter takes position on the front line in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometers north-east of Mosul on August 12, 2014. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE—AFP/Getty Images

Even we Kurds are tired of the West rushing in to save us from Iraq. How long will the rest of the world tolerate this?

American air strikes against Islamist militants on the borders of Kurdistan this week saved millions of Kurds from a terrible nightmare. But I hope they didn’t also kill our dream of an independent state. Only a few weeks ago, Kurds were talking of declaring independence and forever separating from Iraq. We set up an electoral commission for a referendum; Iraqi flags disappeared from the tops of government buildings and amateur Kurdish banknotes began to circulate on the Internet. We had never felt closer to having our own state than we did in the past two months.

We were given this chance by the Islamist fighters who swept across Iraq, took over Sunni provinces and removed the Iraqi army—our historical nemesis—from our immediate borders. But now it seems that this same group has ruined our chance by attacking us too. Now that the United States is helping the Kurds with air power, I’m not sure if we can speak of independence anymore. The world might consider us the spoiled kid who keeps asking for more.

We might keep quiet for now, but this demand of millions of Kurds for a state of our own will resurface again. The Islamist militants aren’t going to roam along our borders forever, and the American bombing campaign will one day stop. Then we will take to the street again, wave the colorful Kurdish flag and pursue our lifelong goal.

This doesn’t mean we are opportunists. It rather means that only an independent state could answer our plight. I speak for the Kurds of Iraq. We haven’t had a happy experience with Iraq. Genocide, imprisonment, persecution and deportation have been our share in that country. There isn’t a single Kurdish family that doesn’t carry the scars of a loss. Many mothers are still waiting for the bones of their sons and daughters—buried by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s—to be found and brought home from the southern deserts of Iraq.

In Iraq we have a term, “Kurdish-Arab brotherhood,” that was coined and promoted by successive regimes. But the truth is more like Kurdish-Arab suspicion and distrust. The Kurds see Iraq as the cause of all their miseries and Iraq thinks the Kurds are the reason that the country has never been stable.

Both sides are right. Iraq has brutalized us for decades, and we have fought Baghdad politically and militarily for years. The Kurds and Iraq are like a couple that starts another fight every time they try to make up. It is a forced and loveless marriage and we need a wise judge to speed up an inevitable divorce.

A country for the Kurds will also spare the world a lot of headache. Western leaders have to pause for a moment and think how many times they have had to rush in and save the Kurds from Iraq. It has happened three times in my own life.

In 1991, when I was 12 years old, we prayed that the West would come and save us from a vengeful Iraqi army that had just been defeated by the allied forces in Kuwait, and they did. They imposed a no-fly-zone in northern Iraq and prevented a genocide. Again in 2003, we hoped that George W. Bush would topple Saddam Hussein because we feared a retaliatory chemical attack from Baghdad.

Now for a third time in less than 30 years, I see again the Western powers sending fighter jets to protect the Kurds from yet another catastrophe. For how long is the world going to do this? If they are not tired of it, the Kurds definitely are. It is absurd to tell the Kurds to stay with Iraq and then scramble fighter jets every 10 years to save them from that same country.

Part of the hostility towards the Kurds from their neighbors is because they see us as allies of the West. So now as the West is marking the centenary of the First World War that divided the Middle East and left the Kurds without a state, it is time they redeemed themselves and let the Kurds join the world community as a sovereign state.

The artificial borders of the Middle East aren’t so sacred to cling to so dearly, nor is Kurdistan a sleeping giant to be afraid of. Autonomous for 20 years, the Kurds have already passed the test for statehood. The Kurdistan Region is a place where religious and ethnic groups live side by side and the Kurds have maintained friendly relations with the East and West without holding our past tragedies against anyone.

Ayub Nuri is a Kurdish journalist from Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan. He is editor-in-chief of Rudaw English.

TIME Iraq

Obama: U.S. ‘Broke’ Siege of Iraqi Mountain

Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 13, 2014.
Displaced Iraqi Yezidi families cross the Iraqi-Syrian border in northern Iraq on Aug. 13, 2014 Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images

"We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives"

Updated 1:33 p.m. E.T.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that U.S. air strikes and humanitarian drops, as well as the efforts of Kurdish forces, have broken the siege of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi religious minority had been trapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing, Obama said a U.S. military and civilian team concluded Wednesday that U.S. efforts have dramatically lessened the likelihood that a rescue would need to be staged to free the civilians on the mountain.

“Because of the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the [ISIS] siege of Mount Sinjar,” Obama said. “We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives.”

U.S. military aircraft have carried out around a dozen air strikes in Iraq since Obama authorized military action a week ago, and U.S. transport planes have delivered more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of fresh water on the mountain in airdrops carried out over the past seven nights.

Obama maintained that the situation in Iraq remains “dire” for those Iraqis who live in areas under the control of ISIS, which has taken large swaths of territory and several of the country’s largest cities in offensives over the past several months. Obama said the U.S. stands ready to carry out similar humanitarian efforts elsewhere in Iraq if necessary, and reiterated that U.S. air strikes would continue in order to protect American military advisers and diplomatic facilities in Iraq.

Obama added that the burden for a long-term solution to the crisis in Iraq lies on the shoulders of the Iraqi government, saying that after a conversation with newly selected Prime Minister–designate Haider al-Abadi, he is “modestly hopeful that the Iraqi government situation is moving in the right direction.”

Al-Abadi would replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is struggling to hold onto power even as domestic factions and international leaders have withdrawn support. Al-Maliki insists that he should have a third term in office, given the success of his Shi‘ite-led faction in an election this past April. However, President Fouad Massoum has asked al-Abadi, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, to try to form a government.

TIME Iraq

An Evil That Must Be Stopped

ISIS is the most serious threat to American interests in a decade. Why we must counter it

Ryan Crocker, who probably knows the Middle East better than any other living American diplomat, recently cut to the chase about the situation in Iraq. “This is about America’s national security,” he told the New York Times. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

We’ve been in the fight for more than a decade too. It began as a proportionate attempt to retaliate against those who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. We successfully ousted the Taliban government that supported Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but Osama and many of his top aides escaped. The war against al-Qaeda should have continued as a targeted special-forces operation, but the flagrantly disproportionate Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq changed all that … and the Obama surge in Afghanistan didn’t help much, either. Suddenly we found ourselves locked in the middle of civil wars in both countries (or perhaps I should say “countries”). The President was right to extricate our combat troops from those futile fights.

But the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS–or the Levant, ISIL, if you prefer) has changed the game again. Terrorism has a new name, and now, for the first time, it has a well-organized, well-funded, well-armed military with the ability to take and perhaps hold territory. There have been reports of al-Qaeda elements linking up with the Islamic State. There are reports of hundreds of would-be jihadis from around the world joining ISIS, including dozens from the U.S. ISIS is considered so extreme that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda’s central command, has condemned it. The Islamic State is metastasizing and committing mass atrocities with astonishing ferocity. It aspires to attack the U.S. and will, no doubt, soon attempt to do so. This is a threat we cannot ignore.

Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq–but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming fight that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies are in the region. We may find that Iran is part of the ISIS solution rather than part of the problem–a problem that Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni extremism helped create. We may even find ourselves on the same side as Syria’s disgraceful Bashar Assad: ISIS is the greatest threat to his continued rule.

There are real dangers here. We don’t want to take sides in what may well become a cataclysmic regional war between Sunni and Shi’ite. We don’t want to become the “air force of Shi’ite militias,” as former CIA director David Petraeus has said. The best way forward would be to work through a reconstituted Iraqi government, led by newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But we’ve seen the danger of arming the Iraqis in the past; those arms are now being used against us by ISIS. In the best-case scenario, al-Abadi builds a government that wins back the trust of Iraq’s Sunnis, but that won’t happen overnight.

In the worst-case scenario, the U.S. military would have to fight the Islamic State from a Kurdish base; support for the peshmerga forces is essential. Any direct U.S. military action should be measured and proportionate–an insinuation rather than an invasion, taken in concert with allies who are capable of sophisticated covert operations. This time, as opposed to 2003, more than a few of the regional players on both sides of the sectarian divide want our help in the war on ISIS. The President may hope that he can keep U.S. involvement at current levels–air strikes and the presence of 800 special operators on the ground, who are mostly scouting the enemy and working up new targeting sets. But no one should be surprised if we find ourselves on a slippery slope toward more violence. There will be no escaping this fight, unfortunately.

There has been endless debate about who “lost” Iraq and Syria. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are squabbling about it. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. There is not a politician, policymaker or journalist who hasn’t been wrong about Iraq at some point. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of national purpose … as clear and united as it was on Sept. 12, 2001. Our war against al-Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME Military

U.S. Boots Stepping Closer to Iraq

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Getty Images

Administration asserts they wouldn’t be in combat, but the enemy might disagree

Those increasingly loud footsteps you hear could be the sound of U.S. military boots marching closer to Iraq, following a visit Wednesday by 20 American troops to plot a way to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees on a mountain surrounded by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. While they reported fewer stranded than originally thought, Pentagon officials said, a rescue operation still might be needed.

President Barack Obama made it clear two months ago that American combat boots wouldn’t be headed back there, where 4,486 U.S. troops died between 2003 and 2011.

“We will not be sending troops back into combat in Iraq,” Obama pledged.

But you can drive an M-1 tank through that “into combat” caveat. It implies, as a top White House aide suggested anew Wednesday, that U.S. troops can go into harm’s way in Iraq and avoid combat. The first rule of war, old soldiers say, is that the enemy always gets a vote.

Other aides have been making similar distinctions. “This is not a combat, boots-on-the-ground operation,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines on Tuesday in California about a possible Iraq mission. “We’re not going to have that kind of operation.”

Hagel’s spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, repeated that refrain Wednesday. “The President’s been very clear,” he told CNN. “There’s not going to be boots on the ground in a combat role.”

Deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday that U.S. troops might be put on the ground to help rescue Yezidi refugees stranded along the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. “The role of U.S. forces is not one of re-entering combat on the ground,” Rhodes said. “In terms of the kinetic actions that are being taken” — bullets and missiles, in other words — “those are in the form of air strikes.”

But that assumes that if U.S. forces go into Iraq to help rescue the refugees, they’ll be calling the shots. Literally.

Unfortunately, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, are eager to fight U.S. troops, Pentagon officials believe. Some are suicidal, and would like nothing more than to die in a firefight with U.S. soldiers or Marines.

There are limits to how much protection American troops on the ground can expect from U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships above. And the nearer aircraft come to provide such firepower, the more vulnerable they become to whatever antiaircraft weapons ISIS has.

Whatever Obama decides, U.S. troops will be able to defend themselves. “Force protection is always a mission for U.S. personnel in any country in the world,” Rhodes said. What Obama has “ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq.” In other words, if U.S. troops are sent into Iraq on a rescue mission, think of them as a football team that plays only defense.

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