WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said on Saturday that the airstrikes and humanitarian assistance drops he ordered last week in Iraq could go on for months, preparing Americans for an extended military presence in the skies there as Iraq’s leaders try to build a new government.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Mr. Obama told reporters before leaving for a two-week golf-and-beach vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. “This is going to be a long-term project.”
The president repeated his insistence that his administration would not send ground troops back to Iraq after ending an unpopular, decade-long war and withdrawing the last troops in 2011. But two days after emphasizing the limited scope of the mission in a White House address, he pledged that the United States would stand with Iraq if it could form a unified and inclusive government to counter the Sunni militants who threaten its future.
“Changing that environment so that the millions of Sunnis who live in these areas feel connected to and well served by a national government, that’s a long-term process,” he said during a lengthy departure statement on the White House lawn during which he took several questions from reporters.
The president’s assessment of the campaign’s duration came as Sunni militants with the Islamic State group began advancing along a main road up Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where thousands of Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority, remained trapped. In Mosul, residents reported that nearly two dozen bodies of Islamic State fighters, said to have been killed in American airstrikes, had arrived at the city’s morgue, while at least 30 wounded fighters were being treated at a hospital.
Saturday was the first time Mr. Obama had addressed the question of a timeline for the military intervention in Iraq, and his remarks are likely to raise new questions, especially among those who fear that the mission could slowly pull America back into a more robust involvement in the country. The president said he would not give a “particular timetable” on the new operations.
Aides said that Mr. Obama had not committed to years of continuous airstrikes while Iraqis develop a new government, but that his comments reflected the uncertainty of a military effort that will be re-evaluated in the months ahead.
The open-ended nature of Mr. Obama’s actions presents a tricky political problem for a president who campaigned against what he once called a “dumb war” and repeatedly pressed Republicans to set a date for the departure of U.S. troops from the battlefield. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, yet Mr. Obama now finds himself in charge of a new, if very different, military operation there with no certain end in sight.
When he announced the airstrikes on Thursday night, Mr. Obama emphasized the immediate goals of protecting Americans in Baghdad and in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, and helping to rescue the Iraqis trapped by Islamic State fighters on the mountain. In his remarks Saturday morning, he focused more on the need to help Iraqis over the long term, giving them what he called space to develop a government that can fight back against militants.
But his acknowledgment that the effort in Iraq will take time may not be enough to satisfy Republican critics, many of whom accuse Mr. Obama of failing to embrace a sufficiently aggressive air mission aimed at driving the militants out of Iraq and Syria.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent, said Saturday that Mr. Obama’s vision for military operations against militants in Iraq was too narrow. He said the actions ordered by the president were not nearly enough to counter a growing threat from “the richest, most powerful terrorist organization in history.”
“Obviously, the president of the United States does not appreciate this is not just a threat to American troops on the ground, or even Iraq or Kurdistan,” Mr. McCain said in a telephone interview from Vietnam, where he was traveling with a congressional delegation. “This is a threat to America.”
In describing a potentially long time frame for military action in Iraq, Mr. Obama cited in part the danger and complexity of the rescue mission on Mount Sinjar. The military has airdropped 36,224 meals to the refugees in the last two days, officials said. But Mr. Obama said the much harder task of creating a safe corridor for them down the mountain would take more time.
“The next step, which is going to be complicated logistically, is how can we give people safe passage,” he said.
Defense Department officials expressed confidence that they could achieve within a few days one of Obama’s announced goals: stopping the advance of the militants on Irbil, where hundreds of U.S. diplomatic officials and military advisers are stationed. On Friday, the military struck a number of Islamic State targets near Irbil, including a stationary convoy of seven vehicles and a mobile artillery unit that was being towed by a truck.
“We can stop them from moving into Irbil,” a senior Defense Department official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe military planning. “The cost will become too high. There will be a tremendous amount of deterrence in these strikes.”
But officials said breaking the siege on Mount Sinjar and protecting Americans in Baghdad from advancing Islamic State militants would take more time, particularly given the instability of Iraq’s internal politics and the vagaries of protecting and eventually evacuating the stranded Iraqis.
In Baghdad, leaders’ efforts to name a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, stalled on Saturday, with Mr. Maliki clinging to power and rivals unable to decide on an alternative. A session of Parliament scheduled for today, when leaders had been expected to nominate a new prime minister, was postponed until Monday.
Hours before Mr. Obama spoke in Washington, Sunni militants in northern Iraq ordered engineers to return to work on the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, suggesting that the extremists who captured the dam last week after fierce battles with Kurdish forces would use it, at least for now, to provide water and electricity to the areas they control.
As the Islamic State consolidates its control of territory, it has shown an intent to act strategically when it comes to natural resources. But its control over the fragile dam also gives the group the ability to create a civilian catastrophe: A break could unleash a tidal wave over Mosul and cause flooding and deaths along the Tigris River south to Baghdad and beyond, experts said.
The Islamic State fighters also appeared to make progress in a separate battle for control of the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second largest, which sits on the Euphrates River farther south in Anbar province. Security forces said militants had destroyed a strategic bridge near the town of Barwana, which government forces had been using to resupply fighting units.