Iraqi Yazidi women demonstrate outside the UN offices in the Iraqi city of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, on August 4. The Yazidis are a small community that follows a 4,000-year-old faith and have been repeatedly targeted by jihadists who call them 'devil-worshipers.' Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday proposed a broader long-term strategy to confront Islamic militants in Iraq, who have surprised U.S. intelligence with the fast pace of their approach on the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Obama warned Americans that the new campaign in Iraq "is going to be a long-term project." He wouldn't give a timetable for how long the U.S. military involvement would last, saying it depends on Iraq's political efforts.
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"I don't think we are going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said. "I think this is going to take some time."
The president said humanitarian efforts continue to airdrop food and water to persecuted religious minorities stranded on a mountaintop, and he said planning was underway for how to get them down.
Obama made his comments on the South Lawn of the White House Saturday, just before boarding Marine One for his summer vacation in Massachusetts.
Obama sharply rejected the premise that it was his decision to pull out from Iraq and said it was because Iraqis didn't want U.S. troops there.
He repeated that the U.S. is not going to have combat troops in Iraq again. "We are going to maintain that because we should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion into Iraq," Obama said.
The president said there's "no doubt" that ISIS, which also goes by the name the Islamic State, advance on the Kurdish capital of Erbil "has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates."
A new airdrop
U.S. military jets launched several airstrikes Friday on isolated targets, including two mortar positions and a vehicle convoy. U.S. officials announced Friday night the second airdrop of food and water in as many days for the imperilled refugees.
The U.S. launched a new airdrop Saturday to aid thousands of Yazidis, members of an Iraqi minority group who fled the advance of ISIS. The extremists have captured hundreds of women from the Yazidi religious minority, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians fled in fear.
U.S. cargo planes flanked by cargo jets have so far dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 28,000 meals and more than 1,500 gallons of water. Obama also confirmed both Britain and France are now providing humanitarian assistance.
Yazidis belong to an ancient religion seen by ISIS as heretical. The group also sees Shia Muslims as apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
The extremists' "campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it."
Underscoring the sense of alarm, a spokesman for Iraq's human rights ministry said hundreds of Yazidi women had been seized by the militants. Kamil Amin, citing reports from the victims' families, said some of the women were being held in schools in Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.
Likely to be used as 'slaves'
"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told The Associated Press. "We think that these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the human and Islamic values."
For the U.S. military, which withdrew its forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war, the re-engagement began when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it. The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, and home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.
Later Friday, the U.S. launched a second round of airstrikes near Irbil, U.S. officials said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the strikes publicly, said unmanned aircraft hit a mortar and four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy.
Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, the militants have captured a string of towns and Iraq's largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks. Ethnic and religious minorities, fearing persecution and slaughter, have fled as their towns fell.
According to the UN, more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, bringing the total this year to well over 1 million.
In contrast to Washington's decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against ISIS were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants' advance.
"We thank Barack Obama," said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the Religious Affairs Ministry in the Kurdish government.
'Potential act of genocide'
In his announcement Thursday night, Obama had identified protecting the Yazidis and defending Americans as the two objectives for the airstrikes.
But on Friday, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the U.S. was also prepared to use military force to assist Iraqi forces and the Kurds' peshmerga militia.
The ISIS group captured Mosul in June, and then launched a blitz toward the south, sweeping over Sunni-majority towns almost to the capital, Baghdad. It already holds large parts of western Iraq, as well as swaths of neighbouring Syria.
Iraqi government forces crumbled in the face of the assault but have since been able to prevent the militants from advancing into Shia-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defence against the radicals, but their fighters are stretched over a long front trying to fend them off.
The International Rescue Committee said it was providing emergency medical care for up to 4,000 dehydrated Yazidis, mostly women and children, who survived without food or water for up to six days hiding in the Sinjar mountains before fleeing to a refugee camp in Syria, where a civil war is raging.