CHILMARK, Mass. – President Barack Obama welcomed new leadership in Iraq as “a promising step forward” Monday amid a political and security crisis in Baghdad, saying the only lasting solution is the formation of an inclusive government.
Obama pointedly did not mention Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but clearly was nudging the incumbent clinging to power to step aside as he urged Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through a political transition.
“The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people,” Obama said outside his rented vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, where he earlier huddled with advisers for updates on events on the other side of the world.
Obama’s remarks came as the U.S. conducted more airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq as Yazidis trapped by the militant’s advance were escaping. “Our aircraft remain positioned to strike any terrorist forces around the mountain who threaten the safety of these families,” Obama said.
In Washington, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the 15 targeted strikes have slowed the Islamic State’s advance but done little to degrade the militants’ capacity as a fighting force.
“In the immediate areas where we’ve focused our strikes we’ve had a very temporary effect,” Mayville said. “I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained — or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by” the Islamic State group.
Amid the security threat loomed a potential political crisis. New Iraqi President Fouad Massoum selected the deputy parliament speaker, Haider al-Ibadi, as al-Maliki’s replacement. Al-Maliki accused Massoum of carrying out “a coup against the constitution and the political process” with al-Ibadi’s nomination. Al-Maliki insisted he should maintain his position as prime minister.
The U.S. is backing the new leadership. Obama said he and Vice-President Joe Biden called al-Ibadi Monday to urge him to form a new cabinet as soon as possible.
“The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters.
The Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against the Islamic State, senior U.S. officials said, but the aid has so far been limited to automatic rifles and ammunition.
Previously, the U.S. sold arms in Iraq only to the government in Baghdad, which has largely failed in recent years to transfer them to the Kurdish forces in the north, American officials have said. Baghdad made some transfers with American help in recent days, since U.S. airstrikes began to support Kurdish forces fighting off the Islamic State advance toward the northern city of Irbil.
But U.S. officials decided to begin their own deliveries. The Kurdish peshmerga fighters had been losing ground to Islamic State militants in recent weeks, in part because they were outgunned and at times ran out of ammunition, officials said.
A Kurdish government official said the U.S. weapons already are being directly sent to Irbil — where U.S. personnel are based — consist mostly of light arms like AK-47s and ammunition.
The State Department sought to downplay the significance of the apparent shift in U.S. policy.
The militants have “obtained some heavy weaponry, and the Kurds need additional arms and we’re providing those — there’s nothing new here,” said department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
But Mayville did not dispute the policy shift. He said the government in Baghdad had provided some weapons to the Kurds in recent days, but he said the need was so great that the U.S. government had to get involved, and is looking to do more.
The needs of Kurdish forces are “pretty substantial,” he said. “We want to help them with that effort.”
Nonetheless, Mayville said, “There are no plans to expand the current air campaign” to target Islamic state leaders or logistical hubs, beyond the Kurdish plan.
“We are looking at plans and how we can expand that support,” Mayville said, adding that the Kurds need ammunition and some heavy weapons that are effective against the Islamic state’s “technical vehicles” and longer range guns.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said American fighter jets carried out airstrikes on four checkpoints manned by Sunni militants in northwest Iraq near where thousands of minority Yazidi refugees have been trapped on a mountain to escape violence.
The strikes outside the city of Sinjar either destroyed or damaged the checkpoints and nearby vehicles that were used by the Islamic State militant group, the military said.
At least one of the vehicles destroyed was a Humvee truck, and another was an armed personnel carrier.
The militants have been using U.S. military equipment that they seized from Iraqi Army forces.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Ken Dilanian and Bradley Klapper in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee in Sydney contributed to this report.