When President Obama announced his authorization of targeted airstrikes in Iraq last Friday, he said the United States would intervene for two reasons: To protect American personal stationed in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and to prevent potential acts of genocide. While the U.S. narrative on Iraq has focused on these two factors, it has ignored the broader political implications of the airstrikes.
Obama said the U.S. would target the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group taking over large swaths of land in Iraq, if it advanced toward Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and one of the main stations for American diplomats in the country.
“To stop the advance on Irbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against [Islamic State] terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” he said in his address Friday. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq.”
Airstrikes from jets launched by a U.S. carrier in the Persian Gulf have followed since.
But Islamic State movements in Iraq have threatened the security of American diplomats and military personnel for weeks. The timing of Obama’s decision to conduct targeted airstrikes Friday came almost exactly two months after the militant group began its advance in Iraq. It took over the country’s second largest city, Mosul, June 10 but had been moving its troops in Syria south toward the border of Iraq in the days before it. Following its takeover of Mosul, the militants moved south toward Baghdad, taking over key cities along the way, seizing oil refineries, and threatening Shiite Muslims and members of other religious sects in the country.
The U.S. announced June 15 it would evacuate some of its Baghdad embassy staff members because of the declining security situation in the country. Yet even during this time, as the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, were losing ground in the north and militants were moving toward the capital, the U.S. did not intervene.
Now, the Obama administration has said it has an obligation to do so.
“We can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq,” Obama said.
But the security situation now is similar to what it was in the middle of June when the Islamic State attacked Shiite villages around Kirkuk, just south of Irbil. Not only were militants threatening to oust non-Sunnis from their homes, but they were attempting to take over some of the most lucrative oil fields in the country.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said not only is the U.S. trying to protect the few hundred Americans in the country, but the thousands of Yazidis, a minority religious and ethnic group now living in the Sinjar mountains after fleeing the advance of the Islamic State, who has previously called members of the group “devil worshippers.” Recent reports indicate militants executed hundreds of Yazidis.
“We have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said in his speech. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
The United States has delivered humanitarian supplies to Yazidis who remain in the mountains, but Obama said he would also allow for more airstrikes to “help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there” -- a protection the U.S. has decided to give civilians even though what they are facing, though horrifying, may not be strictly genocide under international law. (It could be more properly categorized as ethnic cleansing, a term defined by the U.N. Commission of Experts as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”)
Since Obama announced his authorization Friday, the U.S. has conducted 16 airstrikes in Iraq, a Defense Department spokesman said. The U.S. has targeted areas around Irbil, specifically near the towns of Makhmur and Gwer. Defense officials have not specified exactly where the strikes have occurred.
The U.S. used F-18 aircraft to drop 500-pound laser-guided bombs on Islamic State mobile artillery units that were apparently shelling peshmerga forces near Irbil.
Although the White House message about the airstrikes focuses on the militant threat to civilians, the hits took place near massive oil fields that house dozens of rigs and one refinery. The Islamic State was advancing near one of the world's most important oil-producing areas.
Data gathered by the International Business Times indicates the Islamic State is already in control of oil fields in the Makhmur area that produce tens of thousands of barrels a day.
It is no surprise the U.S. has for decades used force to protect the free flow of oil from the Middle East to the world market. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter said in a speech to Congress: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interest of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary including military force.”
That policy still informs U.S. action in the Middle East. U.S. documents from the early 2000s indicate the Iraq War that began in 2003 was waged for reasons including oil security.
The U.S. Defense Department tweeted Monday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the airstrikes “have been very effective.” When asked what success meant in regard to the current operation Iraq, a spokesman declined to comment.
The U.S. has not given an end date for the operation in Iraq, but Obama said he would continue to use military force as long as the Islamic State threatens Irbil and the Yazidi population. The president has said there is no American military solution to the conflict in Iraq, and the political parties in the country need to come to a consensus. Several senior U.S. politicians have argued the president should have kept a few thousand troops in Iraq to prevent a crisis like the one taking place today.
But in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Obama said: "If we have had 10,000 troops there, that would not have prevented the kind of problems we have seen. The difference would be we have 10,000 troops in the middle of this chaos."