Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes succeeded Sunday in expelling Islamic State fighters from two northern Iraqi towns, but the developments did little to appease Obama administration critics who say the White House lacks a coherent long-term strategy for beating back the growing al Qaeda-inspired militancy in the war-torn nation.
As the Kurds advanced in northern Iraq, the power struggle in Baghdad intensified as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the country’s newly elected president of engaging in a “coup” by failing to choose a new prime minister by now. The U.S. State Department publicly supported the Iraqi president.
The tempo of the U.S. military operation in northern Iraq increased throughout the weekend. American aircraft dropped food and water for tens of thousands of Yazidi ethnic-religious minorities who have been trapped for more than a week on a mountaintop by fighters from the Islamic State group.
With the humanitarian mission as a backdrop, U.S. fighter jets and drones pounded a range of targets controlled by the extremist Sunni Muslim group that shocked the world in June when its leaders declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
By Sunday afternoon, the U.S. airstrikes appeared to have created an opening for Kurdish militias in the area to retake territory seized by the Islamic State, whose fighters threatened last week to advance on the main Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq.
Irbil has taken on added significance since President Obama dispatched dozens of U.S. advisers there in recent weeks to assess how Washington can bolster Kurdish forces.
Kurdish Brig. Gen. Shirko Fatih told The Associated Press on Sunday that the forces had pushed Islamic State fighters out of the villages of Makhmour and al-Gweir — roughly 25 miles outside Irbil. The advance opened a corridor to a Kurdish-controlled corner through which thousands of Yazidi refugees had begun to flow by Sunday night.
Although it was not immediately clear whether Islamic State fighters were trying to retake the corridor or pulling away from it indefinitely, many saw the development as a positive step toward averting a massacre of the Yazidi refugees.
Uncertainty remained over what will happen next in northern Iraq, where the surging militancy has created a humanitarian crisis and a safe haven for extremists to plan attacks on the wider region and the world.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, said Sunday that the humanitarian mission outlined by the president in recent days is not equal to a coherent strategy for confronting the threat posed by the Islamic State.
“The president made it clear this was to avert the humanitarian crisis and to protect American military personnel,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s not a strategy, that’s not a policy. That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem which is metastasizing as we speak.”
Mr. McCain’s comments followed similar concerns raised Friday by two former Army generals who told The Washington Times that the administration should be doing more to build a muscular counterterrorism campaign focused on containing the threat from the Islamic State.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik told The Times that U.S. airstrikes against artillery and mortar positions held by Islamic State fighters are “necessary but not sufficient” to confront threats posed by the group.
“There needs to be a more comprehensive strategy rooted in the security interests of the United States,” said Gen. Dubik, who oversaw the training of the Iraqi army during the latter part of the U.S. mission, which ended in 2011. “The key security problem facing the U.S. is the creation there of an Islamic state, basically a sanctuary for terrorists — the very sanctuary that we’ve been fighting for 13 years now to prevent.”
But the political jockeying in Baghdad continued.