Update (1:59 PM EST): Pentagon confirms U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq
U.S. warplanes fired missiles on ground targets in northern Iraq Friday, the Pentagon confirmed midday. On Thursday night (see below), President Obama announced his authorization for such strikes as he justified them on humanitarian grounds that would save Iraqis caught up in current violence in the country from a "genocide."
According to the official statement by Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby:
At approximately 6:45 a.m. EDT, the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists.
Two F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil. ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located.
The decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief.
As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities.
The Islamic State was defiant. A fighter told Reuters by telephone the U.S. air strikes would have "no impact on us".
"The planes attack positions they think are strategic, but this is not how we operate. We are trained for guerrilla street war," he said. "God is with us and our promise is heaven. When we are promised heaven, do you think death will stop us?"
Writing at FireDogLake on Friday morning, former US diplomat in Iraq Peter Van Buren offered an extensive and varied list of reasons why Obama's decision to bomb Iraq is a mistake. A sampling:
- Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.
- Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans.
- Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out.
- Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
And appearing on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez earlier in the day, Middle East and US foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis explained why the bombing of Iraq is exactly the wrong course of action.
"The question of U.S. airstrikes is almost certainly going to make things worse and not better," Bennis said. "This should have been the lesson we learned from what President Obama called the "dumb war." He admitted this time around there is no American military solution, and yet he’s authorizing American military actions. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no logic to it."
Watch the full interview:
In a televised address late Thursday night President Obama announced that he has authorized new U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq.
“Whatever else we may have learned from the president’s ‘dumb war,’ it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”—Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies
The president said the bombings may be necessary to stop the advance of a Sunni militant group, called the Islamic State (previously the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), if they approach the recently increased U.S. forces stationed at a fortified consulate and a military base in the northern city of Erbil.
"To stop the advance on Erbil," Obama stated, "I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city. 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."
ISIS has been warring with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent months, seizing large sections of the country, taking control of key infrastructure, and helping to fuel a humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes to escape fighting.
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Coupled with airdrops of food and water to stranded Iraqis, Obama justified the use of possible airstrikes as part of a "humanitarian" campaign even as he repeated his mantra that "there is no military solution" to the crisis in Iraq.
"When 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. It was unclear how many observers would note that the president's administration was repeatedly accused of "turning a blind eye" in recent weeks as it offered its diplomatic, military, and financial support to the Israeli military as it bombed the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.
Obama notably came to office in 2008 as the candidate who most strongly voiced his opposition to the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is frequently quoted as having called the Iraq War a "dumb war." However, Obama has also defended the war in Iraq. Despite trying to extend the U.S. military presence, once that effort failed, Obama ultimately oversaw the withdrawal of active combat troops there in 2011.
Opponents of new airstrikes were quick to criticize the president for his decision to re-engage militarily.
“This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one,” Phyllis Bennis, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, told the New York Times in response to Obama's announcement. “Whatever else we may have learned from the president’s ‘dumb war,’ it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”
Paul Kawika Martin, political director for the national anti-war group Peace Action, tweeted: "Drop Humanitarian Aid NOT Bombs!"
Bennis was among those who predicted earlier this year—as the ISIS threat emerged in Iraq and Obama responded by sending new troops and "advisers" to the country—that increased U.S. military involvement could feed off itself and lead to further escalations.
Obama's decision to add military forces in Iraq must be challenged, Bennis wrote in June, "before the first Special Forces guy gets captured and suddenly there are boots on the ground to find him. Before the first surveillance plane gets shot down and suddenly there are helicopter crews and more boots on the ground to rescue the pilot. Before the first missile hits a wedding party that some faulty intel guy thought looked like a truckload of terrorists—we seem to be good at that. And before we’re fully back at war."
Writing at Common Dreams, peace activist Medea Benjamin said that just because people oppose more wars and military intervention does mean the U.S. must be " complete isolationists" in Iraq. She wrote:
What is does mean is we should stop spending hundreds of billions of taxdollars on wars that don’t work, harming and killing innocent civilians. If we truly want to help people around the world, there are myriad better ways to do so. The U.S. should put its energy and influence toward a comprehensive ban on the transfer of weapons from outside powers. Rather than attempting additional unilateral moves, the U.S. should be collaborating with regional and international actors to address the root cause of the violence in Iraq. And we should more to help the millions of displaced Iraqis. The US is one of the least refugee-friendly countries in the industrialized world. Given we live in a time with the highest level of refugees since World War II, assisting refugees—often forced out of their homes because of wars we have engaged in or dictators we have supported—could be just one easy way to help others.
Instead of sending more troops, or selling the Iraqis more weapons, or actively bombing targets—Bennis urged the Obama administration and the U.S. lawmakers to instead pursue these five actions that would help alleviate the conflict in Iraq, rather than enflame it:
First, do no harm. There is no military solution in Iraq—so end the threats of airstrikes, bring home the evac troops and Special Forces, and turn the aircraft carrier around.
Second, call for and support an immediate arms embargo on all sides. That means pressuring U.S. regional allies to stop providing weapons and money to various militias.
Third, engage immediately with Iran to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi government to end its sectarian discrimination, its violence against civilians, and its violations of human rights.
Fourth, engage with Russia and other powers to get the United Nations to take the lead in organizing international negotiations for a political solution to the crisis now enveloping Iraq as well as Syria. Those talks must include all sides, including non-violent Syrian and Iraqi activists, civil society organizations, women, and representatives of refugees and displaced people forced from their homes. All relevant outside parties, including Iran, must be included. Building on the success of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, Washington should continue to broaden its engagement with Tehran with the goal of helping to bring the Syrian and Iraqi wars to an immediate end.
Fifth, get help to the people who need it. The Iraq war is creating an enormous new refugee and humanitarian crisis, escalating the crisis of the Syrian war, and spreading across the entire region. The United States has pledged one of the largest grants of humanitarian aid for refugees from Syria, but it is still too small, and much of it has not been paid out. Simultaneously with the announcement of an immediate arms embargo, Washington should announce a major increase in humanitarian assistance for all refugees in the region to be made immediately available to UN agencies, and call on other countries to do the same.
Steps like these, not new rounds of airstrikes, is "how wars get stopped," Bennis concluded.