Lawmakers weigh US role against Islamic fighters


KURDS: AIRSTRIKES HELP PUSH BACK MILITANTS

U.S. forces continued the assault on Sunni militants is northern Iraq on Sunday in a series of airstrikes near the Kurdish city of Irbil. Kurdish authorities said the U.S. attacks had helped their forces regain effective control of several towns outside Irbil.

The four strikes conducted early Sunday successfully destroyed armed trucks used by the Islamic State to fire on Kurdish forces, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

The strikes were conducted by piloted jets and unmanned drones, and the aircraft returned safely, the military said.

President Obama launched the air campaign against the Islamist militant group on Thursday, saying its siege on Irbil was a threat to U.S. personnel stationed in the Kurdish regional capital. Obama said the latest mission against what he called “barbaric terrorists” could be a long-term mission.

The president made the remarks Saturday before leaving on a nearly two-week vacation on this resort island.

The assault Sunday began at 9:15 a.m. in Iraq and ended about five hours later. The four strikes destroyed three vehicles and a mortar position, the military said.

The Kurdish press hailed what it described as a shift in the momentum of the battle against extremists, attributable in part to the U.S. airstrikes.

— McClatchy Newspapers

POPE EXPRESSES OUTRAGE AT VIOLENCE IN IRAQ

Pope Francis on Sunday expressed outrage at violence aimed at religious minorities in Iraq and called on the world “to stop these crimes.”

In a strongly worded message during his traditional Sunday blessing, Francis said the news from Iraq “leaves us in dismay and disbelief.” He cited “the thousands of people, including Christians, who have been brutally forced from their homes, children who have died from thirst during the escape and women who have been seized.”

The pope urged the international community to find “an efficient political solution that can stop these crimes and re-establish the rule of law.” He said his personal emissary, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, would depart imminently for Iraq “in order to better ensure those dear suffering populations of my closeness to them.”

— Associated Press

Islamic militants’ growing influence in Iraq and Syria is a threat to Americans, lawmakers from both political parties agreed Sunday even as they sharply split on what role the United States should play in trying to crush them.

President Barack Obama last week approved limited airstrikes against Islamic State fighters, whose rapid rise in June plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the end of 2011, when U.S. troops withdrew from the country at the end of an unpopular eight-year war. Obama said the current military campaign would be a “long-term project” to protect civilians from the deadly and brutal insurgents.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the militants threaten not just Iraqis but also Americans. He said Obama’s strikes were insufficient to turn back the militants and were designed “to avoid a bad news story on his watch.”

“I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and in Iraq,” said Graham, a reliable advocate for using U.S. military force overseas.

“They are coming here,” Graham later added about the militants. “This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. It is about our homeland.”

Graham added that if Islamic State militants attack the United States because Obama “has no strategy to protect us, he will have committed a blunder for the ages.”

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, D-Calif., also said the militants pose a threat “in our backyard” and was recruiting westerners.

“Inaction is no longer an option,” she said in a statement as airstrikes were underway.

The rhetoric tracked closely to that used in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers from both parties voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to take military action against Iraq in the hopes of combating terrorism.

At the time, many said the United States faced a choice of fighting terrorism on American soil or on foreign soil.

A close White House ally, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Islamic State fighters are a “growing and troublesome” threat. But, he added, “we must not send the troops.”

“The big question is: What can the United States do to stop it?” Durbin asked.

A breakdown in talks between Washington and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq collapsed in 2008, and Obama withdrew troops in 2011.

Al-Maliki now is under mounting pressure to step aside, including requests from U.S. lawmakers.

“The collapse of Mosul was not a result of lack of equipment or lack of personnel. It was a leadership collapse,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. “And so in order to put the situation right, we have to begin at the fundamental core, which is leadership in Baghdad, Iraqi leadership.”

Critics say the Shiite leader contributed to the crisis by monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

The Islamic State group, which some lawmakers refer to as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is “getting stronger all the time,” warned Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

“They have attracted 1,000 young men from around the world who are now fighting on their side,” McCain added. “This ISIS is metastasizing throughout region, and their goal, as they’ve stated openly time after time, is the destruction of United States of America.”

Lawmakers from both parties largely agreed that a war-weary America has little appetite to send military forces back to Iraq.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Iraqis need to handle their domestic security.

“There is not a U.S. military solution to this issue,” Cardin said.

“We will not become the Iraqi air force,” he added. “I don’t think we can take out ISIS from a military point of view, from the use of our air strikes.”

But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said popular opinion should not drive national security decisions.

“I am saying we should do whatever we have to do,” King said.