President Obama said Saturday that U.S. airstrikes against Islamist insurgents in Iraq have been successful so far but cautioned that propping up Iraq's government and military will be a "long-term project," and he bristled at suggestions he's to blame for the crisis.
"So far these strikes have successfully destroyed arms and equipment that [the] terrorists could have used against" Americans, Mr. Obama said in a brief news conference on the South Lawn of the White House.
In a downbeat assessment about Iraqis' ability to fight the growing insurgency, the president said the territorial gains by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were "more rapid than the intelligence estimates" and the expectations of policymakers.
"What we've seen over the last several months indicates the weaknesses in the Iraqi government, but what we've also seen is a wake-up call for a lot of Iraqis," Mr. Obama said. "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks. I think this is going to take some time."
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama has been warned by several government agencies, including the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Homeland Security, about the extent of the threat posed by the terrorist group.
"President still doesn't seem to understand the nature of ISIS threat to US, as his CIA, DHS, FBI, DNI, & DOJ leaders have warned," Mr. McCain said Saturday on his Twitter account.
The president also said the U.S. military has conducted two successful air drops of food in a humanitarian mission to save ethnic minority Iraqis trapped by the terrorist group on a mountain in northern Iraq. Mr. Obama spoke Saturday morning to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, who have agreed to aid in the rescue effort.
But the president indicated that the U.S. and its allies face a daunting, unresolved effort of how to get the tens of thousands of besieged Iraqis off the mountain and resettled in a safe location. He said the allies are examining whether they need to attack the militants to create a "corridor" to evacuate the refugees.
"Moving them is not simple in this kind of security environment," Mr. Obama said.
The U.S. military has carried out at least three rounds of airstrikes against the militants in Iraq in a renewed effort to bolster the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The strikes targeted fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including a convoy, mortars and artillery, said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby
The president held the impromptu news conference before heading off with his family for a two-week vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Mass. He sought to reassure Americans that his authorization of airstrikes against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) won't lead to a return of U.S. ground troops in Iraq.
But Mr. Obama instead launched into a lengthy defense of his policies when a reporter asked whether he "regrets" not keeping a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq, instead of withdrawing all troops in 2011. The president at first laid blame on the Bush administration for the current situation, then claimed Iraq is so dysfunctional that it wouldn't have mattered how many U.S. ground troops were stationed there to keep the peace.
"I find interesting the degree to which this issue keeps coming up, as if this was my decision," Mr. Obama said. "Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution. … Let's just be clear. The reason we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected an administration request in 2011 to keep a residual force of U.S. troops in the country, declining to agree to the standard immunity for American troops. Without such protection, Mr. Obama said, the U.S. had no choice but to withdraw all troops.
But the president said that, because Mr. al-Maliki's government hasn't included minority Sunnis in the government and has jailed Sunni leaders, the presence of U.S. ground troops would not have prevented Iraq from breaking apart. The president said if U.S. troops had been left in Iraq, he'd now be facing calls for a surge of additional troops.
"The only difference would be we'd have a bunch of troops on the ground that would be vulnerable," Mr. Obama said. "However many troops we had, we would have to now be reinforcing, I'd have to be protecting them, and we'd have a much bigger job. And probably we would end up having to go up again in terms of the number of ground troops to make sure that those forces were not vulnerable."
He concluded of critics who blame him for the crisis, "That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who often times are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made."
Mr. Obama said there is a lesson for the U.S. in preparing to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
"If you want this thing to work, then whether it's different ethnicities, different religions, different regions, they've got to accommodate each other," he said. "Otherwise you start tipping back into the old patterns of violence, and it doesn't matter how many U.S. troops are there if that happens. You end up having a mess."
The Obama administration is working urgently with Iraqi officials to form a new government and hopes to have the announcement of a new prime minister within days. Mr. Obama indicated it will be just the start of a long, hard slog against ISIL for the Iraqi military and its U.S. advisers.
To mount an offensive, he said, the Iraqi army is going to have to "revamp, get resupplied, have a clear strategy."
"That's all going to be dependent on a government that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military have confidence in," Mr. Obama said. "This is going to be a long-term project."
After the news conference, Mr. Obama left for a two-week vacation to Martha's Vineyard.
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