U.S. targets ISIS in Iraq with fresh airstrikes
Critical week in Washington for approving Syrian strategy
U.S. officials said Monday the United States has taken the first step in its planned expanded fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, going to the aid of Iraqi security forces near Baghdad who were being attacked by enemy fighters.
The U.S. Central Command said it conducted two airstrikes Sunday and Monday in support of the Iraqi forces near Sinjar and southwest of Baghdad.
The strikes represent the newly broadened mission authorized by U.S. President Barack Obama to go on the offensive against the Islamic State group wherever it is. Previous U.S. airstrikes in Iraq were conducted to protect U.S. interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. These strikes were in direct support of Iraqi forces fighting the militants.
Central Command said the strikes destroyed six Islamic State vehicles and one of the group's fighting positions that was firing on the Iraqi security forces.
U.S. officials said the Iraqi forces requested assistance when they came under fire from militants. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the mission publicly by name.
Arming Syrian rebels
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers raced to authorize an expanded mission to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels before heading back to the campaign trail, with House Republicans preparing legislation backing a central plank of Obama's strategy against ISIS.
The Obama administration says the training operation is needed to establish credible, local ground forces to accompany U.S. air strikes. The House and Senate are both on a tight schedule, looking to wrap up work Friday before an almost two-month recess in preparation for November's midterm elections.
The authorization under consideration will likely be included as an amendment to a spending bill Congress must pass to keep the government open until mid-December. That would give lawmakers the opportunity to hold a separate debate and vote on the matter — something members of both parties want.
The measure doesn't authorize U.S. combat troops in Iraq or Syria or explicitly ban them, reflecting a congressional divide between hawks seeking tougher action than that proposed by Obama and lawmakers weary from more than a decade of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrats are reviewing the proposal, which would enable the military to take over what has previously been a limited, covert operation to beef up rebels battling extremist groups and President Bashar Assad's army. The administration isn't likely to protest the conditions. It has sent more than 1,000 troops to Iraq to provide military assistance and bolster security of U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel. But Obama, too, opposes any U.S. ground offensive.
Obama's opposition to ground forces explains why U.S. officials are attaching such importance to enhancing the capacities of Syria's more moderate rebels. They've received little in military assistance from the United States over three-and-a-half years of civil war and have been overwhelmed by opponents on both sides. Until recently, U.S. officials were among the most opposed to providing them with greater assistance.
The U.S. plan is to develop moderate forces in Saudi Arabia before helping them return to the battlefield. It's unclear how long they will need to be battle ready or how the U.S. can ensure their attention remains on fighting extremists and not just the Syrian government.
Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed reservations about the ability to identify moderates in a country awash with rebel formations and shifting alliances.