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President Obama is set to deliver a statement from Martha’s Vineyard on the situation in Iraq at 4:45 p.m. ET.
President Obama is set to deliver a statement from Martha’s Vineyard on the situation in Iraq at 4:45 p.m. ET.
My friend Sinan and I were on the phone with a dying young man.
But this 23-year-old Iraqi was not dying from a car crash or a bullet wound. He was one of the estimated 50,000 Yazidis stranded on Sinjar Mountain who have been dying of thirst, besieged by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.
“It is difficult to speak since I haven’t had water in three days,” the man wheezed through the line. “We don’t have anything–food, water, a place to sleep. We are eating the trees and their leaves. The [Kurdish] peshmerga hasn’t come, the Iraqi army hasn’t come, humanitarian aid hasn’t come. There are so many thousands of people here. I know at least 100 people have died already, many of them children.”
I could see Sinan, also a Yazidi and a friend of the man, becoming emotional, his bottom lip beginning to twitch. After we hung up, Sinan began sobbing into his hands. Two of his friends came over and patted him on the back, offering the standard condolence: “God-willing, things will get better.”
When they left, Sinan whispered through his palms, “They can’t understand. They are Muslim. Their religion is big, they are not alone like we are.”
It took me a minute to understand him, but he was right, and I can’t really understand either. As a Christian, it’s impossible for me or for our Muslim friends to truly understand life as a religious minority in the global sense, especially one as small and marginalized as the Yazidis.
Yazidis, who practice what is considered one of the oldest religions in the world, are monotheists who believe God (or Yasdan) created the world and seven angelic beings to govern it. The most prominent of these beings is Malak Tawous, an angel whom Muslims and Christians often identify with Satan. The Yazidis’ reverence for a being considered by other religions to be evil led many (particularly Muslims) to deem them “Satan worshippers” and Muslim and Christians alike have used that term to demonize Yazidis and to justify persecution against them.
By most estimates, there are only about half a million Yazidis left in Iraq, which means a significant number of their already dwindling population is on that mountain now, still dying, even as the United States has initiated humanitarian air drops and reportedly considers rescue missions.
As we talked a little more, Sinan showed me the updates his friends and family members were sharing via their cell phones in real time, while under siege. “He was studying math at the university,” “she baked the best naan bread,” “this man’s daughter is missing,” he would say as he thumbed through Facebook.
Sinan finally stood up and pocketed his phone, saying he needed to go. He asked me to “tell America” about his people.
Now tremendous American, Iraqi, and Kurdish efforts are being made, but the situation is still dire for many on the mountain who cannot reach the aid that has been dropped, for those displaced in cities and on highways, and for the hundreds of Yazidi women who were just taken captive by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.
“My people may be gone soon,” Sinan said as he walked away.
Today, the U.S. is actively working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Jeremy Courtney is executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization in Iraq, and author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting mounting pressure for his resignation, and has threatened to take legal action against the country’s President Fouad Massoum for failing to back his bid for a third term in office. The political discord comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country’s north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing attacks being carried out by Sunni extremists.
Late on Sunday, Maliki accused Massoum of mounting “a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system.”
Maliki says he is entitled to a third term because his coalition won in polls held in April. However, he has not earned support from the legislature.
“Getting the confidence of Parliament is key,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “Maliki did not get that as a result of his mishandling of the current crisis in Iraq as well as his divisive policies over the two terms he has served as Prime Minister.”
The U.S., which has begun targeting militants in northern Iraq in limited airstrikes, urged caution. “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney on Monday.
The embattled Shi’ite premier has been accused of stoking sectarian fighting by marginalizing Sunni rivals in the government and military in order to consolidate his grip on power since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.
“It seems that Maliki’s priorities have been centered on trying to secure a third term for himself as Prime Minister rather than security of Iraq,” says Khatib. “His leadership performance has been abysmal.”
The New York Times reported early on Monday that the Prime Minister ordered tanks and an unspecified number of additional commandos to take up key positions within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, spurring fears of confrontation with his political opponents.
Meanwhile, further north in Iraq’s Kurdish region, aid agencies continued to scramble to help the wave of refugees that was unleashed nine days ago, when forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched a savage military offensive in the region, aimed at removing religious minorities from the large swath of territory between Mosul and the Tigris River to the west.
“Their target towns have been towns, villages, areas where there are substantial non-Sunni, religious minorities,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ISIS’s goal, he said, “seems rather clear.”
The U.N. Refugee Agency reports at least 30,000 people have managed to escape from the mountains near Sinjar after being trapped there without water or supplies by ISIS forces. However, humanitarian groups on the ground said the situation in the region is still critical.
“Its imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure these people receive the life-saving assistance they need,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Late last weekend, U.S. forces began dropping relief supplies, and targeting ISIS positions in Sinjar in an effort to break the group’s siege of the conflict zone.
Islamic militants continued their violent advance across Iraq Sunday as the humanitarian crisis escalated over the weekend, despite military action by the U.S. Thousands of religious minority Yazidis remain trapped by Sunni extremists in the country’s north even as Kurdistan, Iraq’s semiautonomous bastion of security, begins to look vulnerable.
On Sunday, Kurdish forces were able to rescue some 20,000 Yazidi Iraqis who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar, but many thousands remain trapped as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) makes its brutal advance north. An Iraqi government minister told Reuters that militants slaughtered 500 Yazidis on Sunday, including woman and children, and buried some alive — though there was no independent confirmation of the alleged massacre.
The U.S. has raised the stakes by committing to airstrikes against the militants as well as air drops to supply refugees with food and water. President Obama announced Saturday there would be no timetable for an end to U.S. support in the country.
Moises Saman, a longtime chronicler of conflicts in the Middle East who has covered the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, is in Iraq, photographing the impact of the conflict on the Yazidi population for TIME. On Sunday, he went to a border crossing into Kurdistan at Fishkhabur, where thousands of fleeing Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar mountains are seeking shelter. He spoke briefly with TIME from his hotel room.
TIME: What did you see today?
MS: There were thousands of families streaming through the [Fishkhabur] crossing, which is kind of an improvised bridge that’s been built over the river. Just a constant stream of people. It was mostly women and children. People were extremely tired. A lot of people just collapsed when they arrived. You could tell that they’ve been spending days outside. A lot of them didn’t have shoes and were extremely dirty.
Everybody was saying they’d been walking for days without food and water. That was the common thing I got from people they encountered. They’d been through this very traumatic journey, and they’re terrified and exhausted, and happy to be safe. But they’re too traumatized to savor that.
What is the humanitarian situation like when refugees arrive in Kurdistan?
The aid wasn’t very organized. There were people handing out water and I saw people handing out shoes and things like that, but it wasn’t as organized as you’d find in a refugee camp. They’re trying to improvise because they didn’t expect a massive influx of people here. They’re just trying to do the best they can.
How have Iraqis you’ve met reacted to the advance of ISIS militants?
Here you just hear “ISIS” in every conversation. It’s this scary thing that’s out there. ISIS has been so good at creating this propaganda that they’re so ruthless, and I think people are really scared of the. People do talk about [the militants] kidnapping women, the violence and beheadings. That their ruthlessness doesn’t seem to have a limit. It’s very dark and very real to people.
And ISIS is very much out there, taking towns and villages and been getting very close to [the regional capital of] Erbil, so I think the fear is very much real. People hearing rumors that they’re coming or advancing makes them flee ahead of them. That’s creating this dynamic that people are scared to death even just by rumors. That’s what seems to be creating this massive movement of people right now.
How much are Iraqis talking about U.S. aid or military assistance?
I didn’t pick up on that here. I think right now they’re not really aware. They don’t really know what’s happening as far as Americans bombing goes, and I didn’t pick up any “thank you” America kind of thing.
You’ve covered the civil war in Syria, where ISIS first gained a foothold. You’ve also been to Kurdistan in the last few months. What’s different now?
The number of women and children and old people surprised me. And people [in Kurdistan] seem more edgy. There are more people with guns out in the street, and you get the sense that it’s much more tense than a month ago.
This interview has been edited for clarity
President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.
But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.
Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.
Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.
Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.
But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.
The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.
But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.
“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”
Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.
“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”
In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.
But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.
Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.
If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.
Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.
The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.
President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.
ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”
Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.
The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.
“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”
A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”
Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.
“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”
Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”
Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.
But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.
“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”
Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.
At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.
“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”
“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”
President Barack Obama is set to deliver a statement on Iraq from the White House at 10:25 a.m. ET Saturday. Watch live here.
As the United States is ramping up a bombing campaign against an extremist militant group in Iraq, President Barack Obama said in an interview with the New York Times published late Friday that the U.S. has a strategic interest in preventing the group from gaining a foothold in northern Iraq.
While Obama said the U.S. can’t just be “the Iraqi air force,” he argued it needs to “bolster” Iraqi leadership, and prevent Sunni extremists from forming a state through Syria and Iraq under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“We do have a strategic interest in pushing back” ISIS, the President said in an interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”
Moreover, the President said, the U.S. has a moral obligation in Iraq to defend populations that face slaughter at the hands of ISIS fighters, including the Yazidi minority group and Iraqi Kurds, both of whom are threatened by ISIS’ advance.
“When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so,” the President said.
However, Obama argued the U.S. has to act as a catalyst for Iraq’s own leaders to handle the crisis themselves.
“[We] do think it’s important to make sure that that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force,” the President said. “I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against [ISIS].”
Updated Aug. 10, 10:47 a.m. ET
The Pentagon continued Saturday to direct airstrikes against Iraqi militants and carry out supply drops for vulnerable refugees after President Barack Obama said he doesn’t have an end date in mind for American aerial involvement in Iraq.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama told reporters before departing Washington for a family vacation. “This is going to take some time.”
The U.S. military continued to attack militant targets on Sunday, using both fighters and drones to help defend Kurdish forces near Irbil. Three Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) trucks and a mortar position were destroyed in overnight raids.
Obama said that airstrikes, which began Friday, have destroyed weapons that would have been used by ISIS to continue its offensive into northern Iraq. He also announced that France and the United Kingdom have agreed to help provide humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar surrounded by ISIS fighters.
“We feel confident we can prevent ISIL from going up the mountain and slaughtering people who are there,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. He added that the next step will be securing the refugees a path to safety.
Obama’s statement came hours before U.S. forces conducted a third successful airdrop involving one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft dropping a total of 72 bundles of supplies, including food and water for thousands of citizens on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar. The civilians, largely ethnic Yazidi, sought shelter on the mountain as Kurdish forces have suffered setbacks at the hands of the Islamist militant group. The supply drop included 3,804 gallons of drinking water and 16,128 ready-to-eat meals.
“To date, in coordination with the government of Iraq, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 52,000 meals and more than 10,600 gallons of fresh drinking water, providing much-needed aid to the displaced Yazidis, who urgently require emergency assistance,” the Pentagon said in a statement. American officials said the drops will continue as long as there is a humanitarian need, adding they expect that need to continue for some time.
Months after suggesting the group was “JV” compared to core al Qaeda, Obama acknowledged Saturday that ISIS had caught American intelligence officials and lawmakers flat-footed. “I think that there is no doubt that their advance, their movement has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and the expectations of policymakers,” he said.
Obama said a long-term solution to the crisis requires new political leadership on the part of the Iraqi government, calling on leaders there to form “an inclusive government” and for all ethnic groups to join together to oppose ISIS. “This is going to be a long-term project,” he said.
The president also defended his administration from critics who argue he should have American ground forces in Iraq. “As if this was my decision,” Obama protested. He said “the reason we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq is a majority of Iraqis did not want our troops there.”
The third humanitarian airdrop accompanied four airstrike missions carried out by U.S. fighters and remotely piolted aircraft on ISIS forces threatening the Yazidis, destroying four armored armored personal carriers and an armed truck.
The United States’ military interest in Iraq extends to protecting American military personnel and civilians in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which is the location of a U.S. consulate. President Barack Obama authorized both the humanitarian and military operations Thursday night.
“We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad,” Obama said Thursday in a primetime statement from the White House. But Obama ruled out any U.S. ground forces becoming involved in the battle against ISIS. “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. Obama also told The New York Times in an interview posted late Friday that the U.S. would not become “the Iraqi air force,” while arguing the U.S. has a “strategic interest in pushing back” against the Islamist group.
Hundreds of American troops are already in Iraq, advising Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. facilities.
On Friday, U.S. Central Command released footage of the first humanitarian airdrop carried out Thursday night:
U.S. Central Command also released video footage of two of the airstrikes carried out Friday:
With reporting by Sam Frizell
The Iraq War — what was it good for? Absolutely nothing? That’s yet to be seen. As an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran who spent most of his 2003–04 deployment on the ground in Iraq as an infantryman, I think about such things. Especially since I was with a combat unit assigned to win hearts and minds while “punishing the deserving” in Mosul.
When reports first started coming out of Iraq that the black-flag-waving ISIS had completely taken over my unit’s old stomping grounds, my first thoughts were with the people of Mosul and all those who worked alongside us. Our interpreters — many of whom would cover their faces with scarves or baseball hats — risked their lives coming out on missions with us to their neighborhoods. There was also a high turnover rate. Many would stop showing up, not because they didn’t feel like it or didn’t like the job but because they received death threats or, worse, were murdered.
I never got her name, but there was one Iraqi interpreter I think about more now than ever. She always arrived to work with a warm smile and whatever book she was reading, always in English. One day we struck up a conversation in English, and from there we formed a bit of a friendship.
When I’d catch her sitting by herself and reading, I’d hit her up for free Arabic lessons. She always happily obliged. We’d talk about politics, Iraqi culture, books and Iraqi customs.
She taught English at the university level before the war. When she first heard rumors that the Americans were going to invade Iraq, she prayed and prayed that we would. She was convinced that Iraq would be better off without Saddam Hussein ruling it and that U.S. forces would do a lot of good for her country. At the time, I believed the same. She even joked that if the Americans weren’t going to come, she would fly to the White House and beg George W. Bush to “please invade Iraq.”
When this happened, her prayers seemed to be answered. She quit her job teaching English and became an interpreter for us.
One day, I stopped seeing her around the base. Some of the other interpreters told me “they” found out she was working with the Americans, so they murdered her sister.
So she quit.
Since being discharged from the military shortly after I returned in 2004, many have asked me, “Was it worth it?” I think of my Iraqi friend who always smiled and carried books with her everywhere she went and took time out of her day to teach me Arabic, and I wonder if she still thinks it was worth it. My mind floods with memories of the Iraqis in Mosul who did think it was worth it for us to be there, as well as forces clad in black and pointing their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at us while we were trying to complete our objectives: to “eliminate the enemy that continues to hinder progress for the Iraqi people,” “help Iraq restore its independence” and “remain in Iraq until our mission is complete.”
While I was in Iraq, I figured I’d have the rest of my life (if I came home) to think long and hard about the bigger questions like whether our fight was worth it, so why waste my time over there doing so when we still had a mission to complete? It has been almost 10 years, a full decade, since I’ve come back from Iraq, and I still don’t have an answer.
Ultimately, I think, that question would be best answered by an Iraqi. It’s their war now, and they know what they’re fighting for a hell of a lot more than I ever could.
The mission in Iraq appears to be far from complete, and I’m sure there are plenty of Iraqis right now praying for somebody, anybody, to invade their country or at least bomb it.