Washington, DC – US air operations in Iraq reflect a commitment to relieving the humanitarian issue in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region and to protecting American personnel, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said today.
Kirby discussed the situation in Iraq with Chris Cuomo on the CNN program “New Day.” The admiral is in New Delhi with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near the regional capital of Irbil today. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where US personnel are located, Kirby said in a statement earlier today. Yesterday, US aircraft dropped food and water to thousands of people seeking refuge on Mount Sinjar to escape ISIL fighters.
“We’re committed to two things,” Kirby told Cuomo. “One is trying to relieve the humanitarian issue there on Mount Sinjar, and of course being prepared and ready to conduct airstrikes to protect American personnel … in Irbil and potentially even in and around Baghdad.”
The airstrikes also will try to help Iraqi security forces, the admiral added, “as they go after the ISIL threat inside their country, to their people [and] to their sovereignty. Ultimately, this is an Iraqi fight.”
Kirby noted that ISIL’s progress in Iraq has been swift and that the terrorist group is well-led and well-resourced. But the larger picture is mixed, he said.
“We have seen them strengthened there in the north, and that’s what led to the humanitarian disaster on Mount Sinjar — this exodus of these people,” he said. “But toward the south and in and around Baghdad, we continue to see Iraqi security forces stiffen their resistance. They’re being assisted by Shia militia.”
Throughout the country, Kirby said, the fight is not uniform.
On the humanitarian emergency for the Yezidis on Mount Sinjar, the problem is one for the international community to help in solving, the admiral said. “The international community has … responded with some humanitarian assistance, the government of Iraq provided some humanitarian assistance, [and] we’re chipping in to that effort as well,” he added.
Kirby said President Barack Obama was clear in his remarks last night that the world must attend to the behavior of the ISIL terrorists.
“These ISIL terrorists are simply brutes,” the admiral said. “They’re thugs. They’re murderers. They have no regard for human life or human dignity. And it’s not just Christians or the Yezidis they’re threatening.
“We do believe they pose a threat not just to Iraq, but to the region, and they do have aspirational desires to threaten western targets, to include the United States and American citizens,” he continued. “There’s no question about that. … And our focus is helping the Iraqis deal with this threat inside their country and in the broader region.”
The US military focus on the region has intensified over many weeks, he said, with an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activity over Iraq, assessment teams on the ground, advisors working in joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and now conducting air operations.
“The United States is not just standing by idly,” Kirby said. “We are working very hard on this. There is a sense of purpose and urgency here. But … this is ultimately an issue the Iraqi government has got to come to grips with and solve, and the Iraqi security forces have got to continue to step up against this threat.”
A critical step toward the ability of Iraq to secure its own country is the creation of a unity government in Iraq, the admiral added — “a politically inclusive process to look after their own people and provide the kind of structure and stability Iraq needs to prevent the growth of these kinds of extremist groups.”
The United States has expedited military assistance to the Iraqi government, most critically in the form of Hellfire missiles, Kirby said, adding that thousands of the missiles are on the way.
“They’ve been used with good effect and the Iraqi government continues to need those,” he said. “We’re working with the Iraqi government on that, and that does include conversations and discussions with the Kurds and the [armed Kurdish fighters known as] Peshmerga up in the north. We’re continuing to evaluate those kinds of requests.”