Smoke billows after a US air strike Sunday near the Mosul Dam. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — In an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Aug. 7, President Barack Obama promised that while the United States would use its formidable air power to help Iraq push back extremist Islamic State fighters from Erbil and other key northern Iraqi cities, Baghdad shouldn’t count on the US “being the Iraqi Air Force.”
But just 10 days later the White House sent a very different letter to Capitol Hill, in which it informed congressional leadership that the president had ordered the US military to “conduct targeted airstrikes to support operations by Iraqi forces to recapture the Mosul Dam,” which had fallen to the Islamist group about two weeks ago.
From Aug. 8 to 17, 35 of the 68 airstrikes conducted in Iraq were launched “in support of Iraqi forces near the Mosul Dam,” the US Central Command said in an Aug. 18 statement, with most of those coming in the past three days.
The 38 airstrikes over the past three days, including the 35 near Mosul in the fierce fight over the dam, were buttressed early Monday morning by Twitter posts from journalists in the area who reported jets circling overhead during continued fighting between Iraq and Kurdish forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The 15 airstrikes announced by the US Central Command on Monday morning appear to have become more specific and more targeted toward supporting combined arms ground operations. The strikes on Monday “damaged or destroyed nine ISIL fighting positions; an ISIL checkpoint; six ISIL armed vehicles; an ISIL light armored vehicle; an ISIL vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft artillery gun, and an IED emplacement belt,” CENTCOM said.
All of this signals a level of coordination and support that the White House had earlier downplayed. And after such a show of force in support of Iraqi and Kurd ground forces, it would appear that if the United States isn’t acting as Iraq’s Air Force, it is at least providing a stand-in role.
US National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden insisted in a statement released on Sunday that American support for the ground fight near the dam is consistent with the president’s policy to “protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, since the failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities — including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace.”
The strikes come just days after 130 US special forces soldiers and USAID staffers, joined by a handful of British soldiers, were airdropped onto Sinjar mountain to assess the humanitarian situation there after tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidi civilians fled ISIL’s bloody rampage against non-Muslims.
Despite the ramped up military action and the 100-plus American combat and surveillance flights over northern Iraq each day, Obama insists there won’t be American “boots on the ground” despite the scores of US troops sent to Iraq in recent weeks to help staff coordination centers with Iraqi troops.
Speaking on British TV on Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to walk the same line as Obama, promising “I want to be absolutely clear [that] Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq. We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British Army.”
But UK officials told reporters earlier in the day that some British soldiers had indeed already been on the ground in the Kurdish north, and were withdrawn once the American personnel concluded that the situation for the Yazidi refugees who had sought shelter there was not as dire as once thought.
The UK has also been flying humanitarian missions over the mountain to drop food and supplies to those stranded there.
But for the leaders of both countries, “boots on the ground” is being used in its most literal sense, even as the US and UK appear to be preparing to engage in military operations for some time to come.
Over the weekend, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told British troops stationed in Cyprus to prepare for more surveillance missions “in the next few weeks and months,” adding that “this is not simply a humanitarian mission.”
The comments again echoed those made by Obama on Aug. 9 when he warned the nation from the South Lawn of the White House that “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to be a long-term project.”
Thanks in part to US air support, Iraqi and Kurdish military officials said on Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish militia had taken back the Mosul Dam, but that there were still IED and mines scattered around the facility, which didn’t allow them to fully occupy the site.
The fighting around the dam continues. ■