Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press
WASHINGTON - The prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe is now poised to pull the United States one step deeper into Iraq, several years after its troops exited a long and painful war there.
The White House is now weighing the possibility of air strikes against Islamist militants in order to rescue thousands of religious minorities stranded in a mountainous area, facing starvation and the threat of mass execution.
A spokesman for President Barack Obama said Thursday that the U.S. government was working with Iraqi authorities to address the crisis; he didn’t confirm or deny multiple reports that the U.S. might participate in a humanitarian airlift, and possibly also airstrikes.
But he did stress the urgent need to help the Yazidi people, members of an ancient religion that combines multiple tenets from different faiths — and who now find themselves trapped by the al-Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“They are unable to access food and water. They don’t have any access to shelter. They have fled persecution, and efforts to leave the mountain are blocked by ISIL forces, who are vowing to kill them,” spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday during a White House press briefing.
“This is a terrible humanitarian situation and one that is of great concern here to the United States.”
The Canadian government also condemned ISIL’s behaviour, which it described as repugnant. On Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said “despicable acts of violence” had displaced more than 200,000 people in the past week, and were driven purely by hate and intolerance.
The sense of urgency was conveyed in a heart-rending scene in the Iraqi parliament this week.
The only lawmaker representing that minority, MP Vian Dakhil, broke down in tears as she described how 70 children had died during the siege, while hundreds of men had been executed and a number of women were killed or sold into slavery.
“We are being slaughtered. We are being exterminated. An entire religion is being wiped from the face of the Earth,” she said, speaking through tears. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us.”
News of a possible escalation came less than two months after Obama announced he was sending 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi military against ISIL. At the time, Obama said he was worried about mission creep and vowed that American combat troops, who left Iraq three years ago, would not return.
He promised not to get dragged back in.
“I think we always have to guard against mission creep,” Obama said in June. “So let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
One military analyst said it’s hard to imagine a humanitarian airdrop, with food and supplies, without military hardware backing it up.
“You’re not going to have an airdrop unless you also have an airstrike — because you have to be able to secure the area,” Col. Jack Jacobs told a panel on MSNBC.
“Humanitarian aid, willy nilly, all over the countryside with the trapped people trying to find their way … to go collect it all, just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
However, like everyone else who spoke on the panel, Jacobs warned that the long-term solution to the turmoil rippling through the Middle East would be a more coherent political and economic strategy for the region — not military strikes.
In an ominous coincidence of timing, Thursday’s news came on the 50th anniversary of the start of escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War — that deadliest of American foreign military quagmires.
On Aug. 7, 1964, both houses of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave then-president Lyndon Johnson authority to use all necessary means to protect U.S. troops and their allies in the region.
But there’s a huge difference from that era, and even from the more recent Iraq invasion in 2003: the U.S. public doesn’t want war.
A Quinnipiac poll last month said a majority of Americans surveyed were opposed to sending ground troops back into Iraq, by a margin of 63 per cent to 29 per cent — with opposition coming from supporters of all political parties, genders and age groups.
A minuscule two per cent of respondents supported using piloted aircraft, while 20 per cent supported using drones or cruise missiles from a distance.
“No one — Obama, (or) the U.S. military — is thrilled about deepening involvement or optimistic about Iraq’s government,” said Stephen Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
“So, very much the opposite (from Vietnam).”