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.

TIME

The Yezidis—and the Kurds—Hope for U.S. Salvation in Iraq

Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.
Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

With ISIS threatening Iraq's north, both the Kurds and the Yezidis are desperate for help—and it's not coming from Baghdad

In a small shop, four Yezidi men watch Kurdish peshmerga fighters perform drills on a local television station. Kurdish forces that have led the efforts to rescue over 50,000 ethnic Yezidis from Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they have been stranded for the last ten days.

“The peshmerga are stronger than the Iraqi army,” says Tassin Qasim Assi, watching the Kurdish fighters. “The Iraqi soldiers are just there for the money.” Assi fled Sinjar, the Yezidi heartland, more than a week ago and is now taking refuge in Erbil with his family. He says he has faith in the Kurdish fighters, but that they need more support to fight the militant army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

In recent days the world has been captivated by the plight of thousands of members of the unique Yazidi sect, which mixes elements of Shiite and Sufi Islam and Christianity, among others relgions. Yazidis have lived as a minority around the mountains of northern Iraq for centuries. They were little known to the wider world until recent images of Yezidi refugees, dehydrated and terrified, were shown around the world, which in part helped prompt recent U.S. airstrikes on ISIS to prevent what President Obama called “genocide.”

While many Yezidis don’t consider themselves Kurds at all, they are Kurdish speaking and have lived in areas held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). That gives the Kurds some responsibility for their fate. “We are not going to dictate who is a Kurd and who is not,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “The important thing is we are a tolerant society and protect all ethnic and religious minorities.”

Bakir says the Kurdish forces now battling the ISIS militants include his Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Kurdish fighters from Syria, as well as some Iraqi national forces. But for the Iraqi national army the defense of the north and minority groups like the Yazidis is unlikely to be a major priority—especially with political parties grappling for power in Baghdad.

“The [Iraqi] army aren’t interested at the moment,” says Shatha Besarani who works for the Iraqi Women’s League. “The Shiites in the south are trying to have it all to themselves. They don’t care what happens in the middle and the north.” Her comments reflect what many in Iraq feel is Baghdad’s Shiite-first agenda. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been clinging to power despite calls from Sunni, Kurdish and even Shiite Iraqis for him to step down and make way for a more inclusive government. Moderate Shiite Haider al-Abadi seems set to take the spot, with endorsements from Iran and others, but al-Maliki has yet to fully give up power.

The political struggle in Baghdad has hampered the already-weak Iraqi army’s ability to fight the radical Sunni militants who now control swathes of the country. The national forces have already failed against ISIS in the field. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled their posts in June as the militants approached, shedding their uniforms and dropping their weapons—weapons that ISIS is now turning against them and the peshmerga. “We know about of the capability of the Iraqi army and air force,” says Bakir, suggesting that its limited ability isn’t adequate for the job. “And this is a huge operation.”

Bakir says the Kurds need military assistance to fight ISIS as well as humanitarian aid to help the Kurds deal with the more than one million Iraqis displaced by the fighting who are taking shelter in their territory. For its part the U.S. is sending in 130 new military advisors to help bolster Kurdish efforts to save the Yezidis and push back the militants. The UK has been providing humanitarian support in the form of airdrops and along with France promising arms support. “The air strikes boosted the morale of the peshmerga,” says Bakir. “But we need to properly arm and equip them to fight these terrorists.”

To the Yezidis, the world’s sudden focus on their plight hasn’t translated into enough international support to save them. Back in the shop the Yazidi men look at pictures they say are of their dead brethren, bodies lying in the desert near Sinjar. Adanan Khalaf, a 25-year-old Yezidi from Sinjar, thrusts forward his phone.

“Where was America?” asks Khalaf. “They are telling us to become Muslims or die.”

And while the calls for better arms for the peshmerga and military assistance are strong here, for many Yazidis, Iraq is no longer a place they can feel safe as one of the region’s smallest minorities.

“We want to go out,” says Assi. “Tell them we want to go America. Or we want to go to Europe. We can’t stay here.” —With reporting by Mirren Gidda/London

TIME Iraq

Rescue Mission ‘Less Likely’ After U.S. Special Forces Land on Iraq Mountain

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate on August 11, 2014.
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate on August 11, 2014. Rodi Said—Reuters

About 20 soldiers scoped out a mountaintop where thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled

The Pentagon may rule out an emergency evacuation mission, after a successful U.S. Army Special Forces mission to check on thousands of stranded Iraqis revealed that conditions have improved more rapidly than expected for the refugees.

The team of less than 20 soldiers, along with USAID personnel, was flown to and from a mountain in northern Iraq via helicopter on Wednesday to evaluate out how to rescue Kurdish speaking Yazidis, who have faced dire conditions since they fled Islamist fighters.

The team did not meet any armed resistance from the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed in a statement Wednesday evening.

Kirby also confirmed that the team had discovered there were fewer Yazidis taking refuge on Mt. Sinjar “than previously feared,” after successful nighttime evacuations over the last several days.

“The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped,” Kirby said.

Hours earlier, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said President Barack Obama has not ruled out sending ground troops to help facilitate the safe rescue of trapped Iraqis. But Rhodes also said Obama won’t send troops to fight ISIS forces.

“What [Obama]’s ruled out is re-introducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” Rhodes told reporters Wednesday on Martha’s Vineyard, where the President is vacationing. “But there are a variety of ways in which we can support the safe removal of those people from the mountain.”

An unknown number of an ethnic minority group known as the Yazidis have been stranded on a mountain range in northern Iraq for days, fleeing ISIS militants who spread into Iraq from Syria. The United Nations declared a “level 3 emergency” for Iraq on Wednesday in an effort to speed humanitarian aid to those stranded, while relief airdrops have come from the U.S. and several other nations. Washington has made the stranded Yazidis a top priority, deploying 130 military advisers to the region Tuesday to help plan rescue efforts.

Rhodes said Wednesday that the U.S. wants to find the best and safest way to get the trapped Yazidis off the mountain without having to engage ISIS militants.

“We have Kurdish forces who are engaged in the area,” Rhodes said. “We have international partners who also want to support the provision of humanitarian assistance. So we’ll look at what the best way and the safest way is to get those people off that mountain.”

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME Military

How the Pentagon Would Save the Stranded Refugees in Northern Iraq

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CH-47 Chinook helicopters, like this one over Iraq, could be used to airlift stranded Iraqi refugees to safety. Getty Images

With clock ticking, airborne rescue mission gaining favor — but it won't be easy

No one knows how many Yazidis are trapped by Islamic militants in the Sinjar mountain range in northwestern Iraq. Some estimate they total 35,000. And there are questions about whether or not a land corridor can be cleared to rescue them—or adequate landing zones found for an airborne exodus before they die for lack of food and water.

But there are no doubts about one point: the U.S. military is the best-outfitted and trained force in the world capable of leading such an effort. That’s why the U.S. military dispatched 130 more advisers to northern Iraq on Tuesday to draft just such a plan.

The refugees’ plight—many have been in the mountains for a week or more—is now the U.S. military’s most urgent task.

The U.S. military faces two key problems in trying to accomplish the mission. The first is President Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq. “This is not a combat boots on the ground kind of operation,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Tuesday. “Short of that, there are some things that we can continue to do—and we are doing.”

Without U.S. boots on the ground, that means any land-rescue effort would probably require at least some non-U.S. military ground forces to keep the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) away from the rescue operation while it takes place. U.S. airstrikes in recent days have kept ISIS forces at bay, but a massive rescue operation is likely to require ground forces.

But allies won’t go where the U.S. fears to tread, which means only local troops—the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga forces—will be available. The Iraqi army collapsed when ISIS stormed Mosul in June, and there is little evidence it has improved since. The Peshmerga are a more likely candidate, but their small arms can’t defeat the U.S.-supplied armor and artillery that ISIS units captured from Iraqi forces in recent months.

Plus, mounting a land-rescue operation may take more time than the stranded Yazidi have. They are being kept alive by airdrops of food and water by the U.S. and other nations. Continuing reports and video footage of dying civilians are likely to compel the Obama Administration to seek a faster rescue option, which would be by air. The U.S. would seek help from other nations in carrying out the risky endeavor.

Once again, such an operation would require allied ground forces to ensure the security of pickup zones, and to help suppress ISIS’s limited, but lethal, anti-aircraft capability.

Britain said Tuesday it was dispatching several CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the region, and the U.S. is expected to follow suit. The distinctive twin-rotor choppers have a range of 450 miles, and some models can carry up to 55 people. But with up to 35,000 refugees needing to be rescued, that adds up to a lot of flights over a lot of days.

TIME Foreign Policy

Officials: U.S. to Send 130 More Advisers to Iraq

Fishkhabur, Iraq. August 11, 2014.Five Yazidi families displaced from Sinjar share a small house in the Kurdish-controlled village of Fishkhabur. The families fled Sinjar for the nearby mountains as ISIS militants were approaching their village, from there they endured a seven-day journey through the mountains of northern Iraq and Syria until they crossed the border into Kurdish-controlled Dohuk Province, in northern Iraq.(Photo by Moises Saman/MAGNUM)
Five Yazidi families displaced from Sinjar share a small house in the Kurdish-controlled village of Fishkhabur. The families fled Sinjar for the nearby mountains as ISIS militants were approaching their village, from there they endured a seven-day journey through the mountains of northern Iraq and Syria until they crossed the border into Kurdish-controlled Dohuk Province, in northern Iraq. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

(WASHINGTON) — The Pentagon is sending 130 more military advisers to northern Iraq to help local forces in their escalating fight against Islamic militants, officials said Tuesday.

The move shows the Obama administration is weighing the impact and implications of several days of targeted airstrikes on the Islamic State fighters and how that has affected U.S.-backed Kurdish forces opposing them in northern Iraq.

The additional U.S. advisers are not combat troops, and President Barack Obama has said repeatedly he will not send ground forces back into Iraq.

One immediate dilemma is the fate of thousands of displaced civilians in the Sinjar area who have been provided with food and water delivered by U.S. cargo planes in recent days. Washington also is considering how to increase its military assistance to the Kurds, whose militia is outgunned by the militants.

The 130 additional U.S. advisers were going to the city of Irbil, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity before an official announcement that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to make later.

The 130 are in addition to 90 U.S. military advisers already in Baghdad and 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil and one in Baghdad — working with Iraqi security forces.

So the new total of U.S. military advisers is 380. They are in addition to about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

TIME Iraq

Kurds Welcome U.S. Help in Iraq, But Remember History of Betrayal

Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014.
Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014. Sebastian Meyer—The Washington Post/Corbis

A brief history of the Kurdish/U.S. relationship shows why

For a few hours, the city of Erbil was in a state of panic. Word came that Gwar, just 30 minutes from the Kurdish capital, had been taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurds and ex-pats alike were packing up, trying to book airline tickets or, in a worse case scenario, preparing to drive to Turkey. But then American war planes swooped in and began bombing and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil.

Kurds breathed a sigh of relief. “The most important development was the decision by the United States to save lives,” says Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a prominent Kurd. “U.S. help is deeply appreciated.” Dr. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, welcomed the UN resolution condemning ISIS, and praised coalition forces for their technical and humanitarian assistance. He noted that the U.S. had co-ordinated tactical efforts with Peshmerga forces, allowing the Kurdish fighters to prepare to go on the offensive. “We used to say Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains. But that doesn’t ring true anymore,” he said.

That said, many Kurds still carry lingering worries that the U.S. will betray them once again. “There’s a history of contact and betrayal with the U.S. and the Kurds where the U.S. made contact and helped but never jumped in with both feet,” says Quil Lawrence, author of The Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, and a correspondent with NPR. “The Kurds have been very frustrated with a lot of the stages long the way,” he says. “But certainly these airstrikes would restore some of that trust. I feel like I’ve had many Kurds quote Churchill to me in the past week: ‘Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.’”

Finally, it seems, the U.S. has exhausted all other possibilities in Iraq and all that’s left is to rely upon the Kurds. It’s only taken a century.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Kurdish rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji carried around in his pocket a copy of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, so inspired was he by American self-determination. And yet it would be the Americans who would help deny the Kurds the same right at nearly every turn. Two years after Wilson delivered that speech, the Allies agreed to an independent Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But by 1923, in the Treaty of Lausanne that recognized Kemal Attaturk’s Turkey, the international community abandoned the Kurds and the referendum promised in the Treaty of Sevres was never realized. Thus began the Kurdish struggle for independence.

After several thwarted attempts to break away from Iraq, the Kurds finally got their first indirect aid from the U.S. in the early 1970s, more thanks to the Shah of Iran than anything else. In 1972, Iraq aligned with the Soviet Union and the Shah pushed the U.S. to arm the Kurds by selling them Soviet weapons seized in Egypt. By 1974, the Kurds were in open rebellion led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, of the same tribe Barzanji was from. But by 1975, Iran and Iraq made peace under the Algiers Accords. Iranian support for the Kurdish uprising abruptly came to a halt and the rebellion collapsed.

Barzani fled to Iran and then America, where he died in 1979, the same year of the Iranian Revolution, where yet again U.S. allegiances shifted. And, yet, again, the Kurds were the unwitting victim.

Towards the end of the First Gulf War, the Kurds saw a window for independence. Encouraged by the Americans, they rose up against Hussein for the third time. Hussein sent in the army and rolled over the Kurds, slaughtering thousands of villagers as they passed through. More than 1.5 million Kurds fled through the mountains to Turkey. American troops and arms never materialized, though they eventually sent in air support, which helped the Kurds push Hussein back to Kirkuk. In order to protect the Kurds, a no-fly zone was formed that lasted nearly a decade, until the Second Gulf War.

By the time the Turks refused America passage for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were in a position to offer themselves as a viable alternative. Fighting side-by-side with American special forces, the Kurds believed that their day had finally come: independence couldn’t be far away. But in the aftermath of the invasion, the Kurds were taken aback when the U.S. tried to disarm them and insisted they join the new government. Warily, the did so, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been the partner they’d hoped for.

Maliki warned repeatedly that the Kurds did not have the authority to drill and export their own oil, and that empowering them would lead to the end of Iraq. By late 2011 some 60,000 Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces were at a stand off near Kirkuk over the oil dispute. But, then, in 2013, Fallujah fell to Sunni extremists and then in the summer of 2014, Mosul and Tikrit fell to ISIS. The Iraqi Army retreated back to Baghdad. The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk and its refinery.

But U.S. refusal to equip the Kurds, and Baghdad’s refusal to share U.S. arms with the peshmerga, left Kurdish forces weakened, low on ammunition and unable to defend a 600-mile border border. ISIS advanced within 30 minutes of the Kurdish capital of Erbil as panicked Kurds and foreign workers began packing and fleeing to the airport or north towards Turkey. Last week, the U.S. stepped in and bombed ISIS and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil. For the first time ever, the U.S. said it would directly arm Kurdish troops. It’s not exactly self-determination — but it’s a start.

 

TIME Iraq

Helicopter Delivering Aid to Refugees Crashes in Sinjar Mountains

A wounded man is carried away from the crash site of an Iraqi Air Force helicopter that crashed shortly after take off during a rescue mission in the Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, Aug. 12, 2014.
A wounded man is carried away from the crash site of an Iraqi Air Force helicopter that crashed shortly after take off during a rescue mission in the Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, Aug. 12, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

Pilot dies in crash, but Iraqi member of parliament and a photographer on assignment for TIME among the survivors

An Iraqi helicopter delivering aid to refugees stranded in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq crashed Tuesday, killing the pilot and injuring several passengers, including an Iraqi member of parliament and a photographer on assignment for TIME.

Photographer Moises SAMAN (Photo by Lorena Ros).
Photographer Moises Saman Photo by Lorena Ros via Magnum

Moises Saman, a photographer with the Magnum photo agency who has worked in Iraq and other countries in region for many years, was involved in the crash. Speaking to a TIME editor by cellphone from Northern Iraq after the incident, he said that the helicopter crashed soon after taking off, having picked up internally displaced Iraqis of the Yazidi ethnicity. The Yazidi civilians have been sheltering from Sunni Islamist militants for many days.

Saman said he had been pinned down by the weight of some of the passengers for a while but was unhurt other than suffering a minor cut on his head. When he spoke he was on his way to a hospital in the city of Dohuk as a precautionary measure.

Iraqi parliamentarian Vian Dakhil was among the survivors of the crash. Dakhil garnered international attention for her impassioned pleas on the floor of Iraq’s parliament to deliver aide to tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority that fled into the mountains as ISIS fighters advanced northward into the Kurdish region of Iraq. The New York Times reported that its Paris bureau chief and veteran war correspondent Alissa J. Rubin, 56, survived the crash with injuries to her head and wrists.

A Kurdish official told the Times that the cause of the crash, though still undetermined, appeared to have been an accident and that no ISIS fighters were seen in the area at the time.

TIME Military

The U.S.’s Timid Third Iraq War

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take positions in northern Iraq on Tuesday. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty Images

Air strikes may help, but on their own they won’t turn the tide against ISIS

The contrasting views of two senior U.S. military leaders on the effectiveness of American air strikes against jihadist targets in northern Iraq could hardly have been more stark.

“Very effective,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Monday in Sydney, Australia.

“Very temporary,” Army Lieut. General William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said later in the day at the Pentagon.

The conflicting signals were a sign of an Administration determined to do just enough to avert a humanitarian catastrophe without launching a third U.S.-Iraq war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL).

While F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s dropped 500-pound bombs on targets like artillery pieces, mortars and armored vehicles, aided by MQ-1 Predators and their 20-pound warheads, they didn’t appear to do much to change the situation on the ground. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are flying up to 100 attack, reconnaissance and support missions a day over Iraq.

Mayville’s briefing was as perplexing and unsatisfying as the 19 airstrikes the U.S. military carried out in Iraq through Aug. 11.

“I’m very concerned about the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq and in the region,” he said. “They’re very well-organized. They are very well equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.”

So what is the U.S. military prepared to do to deal with this threat?

“There are no plans,” Mayville said, “to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defense activities.”

The U.S. military can only do what it is told to do, but the disconnect between threat and response seems especially wide right now. The goals are limited to rescuing the thousands (or tens of thousands; the Pentagon isn’t sure) of Yazidis trapped on, in and around Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, and to protect the Kurdish city of Erbil, where a small number of U.S. personnel, including about 40 recently-dispatched military advisers, are based. Warplanes launching the strikes come from air bases in Kuwait and Qatar and from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, a carrier named for the President who launched the first U.S. war against Iraq in 1991.

“We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil,” Mayville said. “However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria.”

Predictably, ISIS forces have begun to mix in with local civilians to elude U.S. attacks. “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 amongst the people,” Mayville said. “The targeting in this is going to become more difficult.”

The U.S. has begun providing the Kurdish militias known as the Peshmerga with small-arms ammo directly, instead of funneling it through the central Iraq government in Baghdad, he added.

Anthony Zinni was the deputy commander of a U.S. effort to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces—Operational Provide Comfort—after 1991’s Gulf War. “The Peshmerga are fully capable, given the right weapons, equipment and support—like air support—of stopping ISIS in their tracks,” he says. “At least from the north.”

The number of Peshmerga waxes and wanes as the threats the Kurds perceive rise and fall. The U.S. estimated their fighting strength in 2011 at 70,000 to 80,000, but that number could double if all security and police forces are included.

“They’ve been fighting for a long time, against Saddam, with the PKK [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party] up in Turkey, and even in Iran,” says Zinni, who ended his military career as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “They’ve been fighting an insurgency for a hell of a long time because they want a state. They’re also fighting for their homes, their families and their kids—when [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki sends a bunch of soldiers up into the Sunni areas they don’t care—but the Kurds know this is it, that this is an existential threat.”

The Kurds are fighters. “They do have a good warrior ethos—unlike the Iraqis, these are basically people who are agrarian, tough mountain people,” Zinni says. “They’re not fat cats. They haven’t been living in a garrison in a city. They train hard and live in a rugged part of the country. They live in an austere environment—all the things that make up a tough soldier.”

Zinni echoes U.S. military officers who privately grumble that Obama erred in declaring he would not send troops back into Iraq. “I think he made a big mistake in publicly saying he would not put boots on the ground,” Zinni says. “Why tell the other guy what you won’t do?

“You could find yourself with boots on the ground, if only to defend that part of country,” Zinni warns. “Not necessarily going on offense on the ground, but I think it could come to the point where if we had to defend it, we’d have to put boots on the ground, and I don’t think he could get out of that.”

Some U.S. military officers believe it would require up to 15,000 ground troops to turn the tide against ISIS in northern Iraq.

TIME Iraq

Obama Hails Iraq’s New Government

U.S. President Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, Aug. 11, 2014 Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

"Today, Iraq took a promising step forward"

President Barack Obama offered his assistance to the new government emerging in Iraq on Monday, sending a clear message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to cling to power: go.

In brief remarks from outside his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard, Obama endorsed Iraqi Prime Minister–designate Haider al-Abadi as U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) entered their fourth day.

“Today, Iraq took a promising step forward,” Obama said, hours after al-Abadi was selected to be come the country’s next head of government. Obama said he and Vice President Joe Biden called al-Abadi to extend congratulations “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.”

Iraq’s newly elected President named al-Abadi Prime Minister earlier on Monday, after the coalition of Shi‘ite political parties turned against the current Premier. Al-Maliki has since accused the President, Fouad Masoum, of carrying out a “coup against the constitution.”

Obama did not directly mention al-Maliki, who has resisted efforts to unify Iraqi sects against ISIS and has indicated he will challenge efforts to remove him from power, saying only, “I urge all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead.”

“The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people,” he added.

Obama acknowledged that there is no easy political solution to the crisis in Iraq. Before departing for vacation, Obama had said it would take more than weeks to solve the problem. “This is going to take some time,” he said Saturday.

“I’m sure that 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 [ISIS], we stand ready to partner with Iraq in its fight against these terrorist forces. Without question, that effort will be advanced as Iraqis continue to build on today’s process and come together to support a new and inclusive government.”

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