Obama's Iraq aim: contain, not destroy, extremists

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Obama's Iraq aim: contain, not destroy, extremists
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Syrians inspect the rubble of destroyed houses following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: A Syrian youth walks past the wreckage of a vehicle following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Syrians collect remains from the rubble of a destroyed house following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anti-war activists hold placards during a rally denouncing US' air strike on Syria and Iraq, near the US embassy in Seoul on September 15, 2014. 'All bases are covered' in a US-led multinational coalition against the Islamic State, John Kerry said, as Washington rallies diplomatic and public support to smash the jihadists. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: Locals celebrate after Iraqi forces have freed the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September 1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: A Shiite militant is seen after Iraqi forces have freed the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September 1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: Candid portrait of a young Peshmerga soldier at the Kazhir Frontline. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: An Iraqi armed soldier flashes victory sign after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Stringer - Anadolu Agency)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: A Peshmerga soldier makes a victory sign on top of a bunker at the Khazir Frontline. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: Overview of the Kazhir Frontline where a Russian-made T55 tank is positioned facing toward ISIS lines, a few kilometers away. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: An American Humvee is potionned on the Khazir Frontline. It was captured from ISIS militants by Peshmerga soldiers. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: The Hezbollah flag waving after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Stringer - Anadolu Agency)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Iraqi armed forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: A Shiite militant makes victory sign as he stands guard after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JUNE 04: Syrians inspect a building collapsed in an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the opposition controlled Al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on June 04, 2014. More than 100,000 people have been killed during the ongoing three-year conflict in Syria, which has also internally displaced more than 6.5 million people, according to the U.N. Over two million Syrians are now registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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By ROBERT BURNS and LARA JAKES

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's new military strategy in Iraq amounts to trying to contain - not destroy - the Islamic militant group that now controls much of the country's northern region. That leaves open the questions of how deeply the U.S. will be drawn into the sectarian conflict, and whether airstrikes alone can stop the militants' momentum.

Obama insists he will not send American ground troops back to Iraq after having withdrawn them in 2011, fulfilling a campaign promise. Still, even the limited airstrikes against the vicious insurgency show the president's conviction that the U.S. military cannot remain dormant after having fought an eight-year war that temporarily neutralized Sunni extremists but failed to produce lasting peace.

U.S. military jets launched several airstrikes Friday on isolated targets, including two mortar positions and a vehicle convoy in northeastern Iraq, near the country's Kurdish capital of Irbil. U.S. officials announced Friday night the second airdrop of food and water in as many days for imperiled refugees in northwestern Iraq.

Critics Question Whether Obama Has Long-Term Plan In Iraq

The next move may be up to the Islamic State group, the al-Qaida inspired extremists who have chewed up Iraqi opposition so far.

About three dozen U.S. military trainers and a U.S. consulate are in Irbil, where Kurdish forces are fighting off a militant advance. That's no easy defense.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the Islamic State group, "They are well organized and they're armed and they are a significant threat to the stability of Iraq."

Will there be further airstrikes? State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Islamic State group must at least halt its advance on Irbil to prevent further strikes.

Iraq has been pleading for months, if not years, for additional U.S. military help to combat the extremists, but the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in part because it couldn't reach an agreement with the government on legal immunity for U.S. troops. Harf said the Obama administration acted now out of concern that "there was a crisis that had the potential to get much worse."

U.S. officials said the Islamic State extremists in recent days have shown military skill, including using artillery in sophisticated synchronization with other heavy weapons. Their force had overwhelmed not only Iraqi government troops but also the outgunned Kurdish militia.

The Obama administration steadfastly insists the airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops are not the start of an open-ended campaign to defeat the militants.

The president's critics say his approach is too narrow.

"A policy of containment will not work," Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement. They are among the chief critics of Obama's foreign policy in general, beginning with his decision to stick to the 2011 timetable set by President George W. Bush for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The Islamic militants are "inherently expansionist and must be stopped," the senators said. "The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become."

Beyond airstrikes, the administration has been asked to provide arms directly to the Kurdish forces defending Irbil. Until now, the U.S. has been willing to do that only through the central government in Baghdad, which has long feuded with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq's north.

Michael Barbero, a retired Army general who ran the U.S. training mission in Iraq from 2009 to 2011, said Baghdad never delivered about $200 million worth of American weapons that were designated for the Kurds. Pentagon officials maintain they can provide arms only to the Iraqi government, although Harf said Friday the Kurdish forces play a critical role in the crisis.

"We understand their need for additional arms and equipment and are working to provide those as well so they are reinforced," she said.

The CIA could supply the Kurds under a covert operation. An agency spokesman declined comment when asked whether that was happening.

In announcing his decision to intervene militarily, Obama stated plainly that he would not allow the U.S. "to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."

But Obama's limited use of air power leads some to ask whether that approach will make a lasting difference. It also raises questions about whether Obama underestimated the staying power of the extremists, who control an impressive stretch of territory from the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo to most Sunni-dominated areas of northern and western Iraq, up to the edges of Baghdad.

The insurgents frequently launch bombings and other attacks in Baghdad, mostly targeting Shiites and government officials, often within sight and hearing of the U.S. Embassy, which is located in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone. In another sign of the region's instability, the State Department on Friday warned U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq and said those in the country were at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.

"I think the administration realizes that we're dealing with that rarest of things in President Obama's world, which is a military situation that has to be resolved militarily," said James F. Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad when American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The basic problem, Jeffrey said, is "these guys have to be stopped. And it's not a matter of whether the U.S. should stop them - it's a matter of when."

Across the Mideast, the U.S. has deployed considerable military power, including warplanes and an air operations center in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Additionally, the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush currently is located in the Persian Gulf and was the launching site for Friday's airstrikes.

The crisis appears to be falling to Washington to deal with - despite Obama's consultations with other nations and the U.N. - as the U.S. struggles with the parallel challenge of Islamic extremists' gains in neighboring Syria. Vice President Joe Biden, in a call Friday to Iraqi President Fuad Masum, emphasized the threat the extremists present to all Iraqis and affirmed U.S. support, the White House said.

The Islamic State fighters have been surprisingly successful in pursing their stated goal of creating a caliphate, or Islamic religious state, straddling Iraq and Syria. The extremists are a mix of Iraqis and Syrians as well as foreign fighters.

U.S. intelligence officials say some of the Islamic State's fighters have military training, and the group's recent seizure of the Iraqi army's American-supplied armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition has left it better armed than its Kurdish opponents.

Containing the fighters "will require a sustained ground effort," said Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel and intelligence specialist. "It should be a coalition effort" in concert with local Iraqi forces, he said.

Others, however, say even a small taste of American air power may be enough to tip the balance.

The Islamic State "may be good at beheading bound captives and threatening helpless civilians, but they have not yet undergone the kind of physical and psychological trauma that American airpower can impose upon them," said Charles Dunlap Jr., a former Air Force lawyer and now a Duke University law professor.

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Associated Press writers Ken Dilanian and Lolita C. Baldor, and AP Radio reporter Sagar Meghani contributed to this story.

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