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U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against Iraqi Militants, With Narrow Aims


What comes next, now that the U.S. has mounted airstrikes in Iraq for the first time in years? Early today, fighter jets and drones bombed artillery positions of the group calling itself the Islamic State. The militants have swept through northern Iraq and are now targeting the city of Erbil. Late yesterday, President Obama authorized what he called targeted airstrikes along with humanitarian airdrops to help people who had fled the militants. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now in the studio. And Tom, first of all, these insurgents have been on the move, taking territory in Iraq for months. Why did President Obama authorize these air strikes now?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, simply because there are U.S. civilian and military personnel in Erbil. And the president said this is all about the threat to U.S. personnel and facilities. That was echoed by his top aides last night after the president spoke. And the president said the larger issue of confronting ISIS in Iraq must be handled by Iraq. And today his spokesman Josh Earnest echoed that view. Let's listen.

JOSH EARNEST: This is a threat that we cannot confront for them. It is a threat that can only be met and defeated by a unified Iraq in support of an integrated, capable Iraq security force. If that requires the support of the American military, that is support that we're ready to offer.

BOWMAN: So what he's saying is we're willing to help and eventually provide more training assistance - once a new government is formed, by the way - but we're not going to do it all for them.

CORNISH: Now, back in June when the Islamic state fighters rolled in you had Iraqi forces basically retreat, right? Scattered - drop their weapons. Are there any Iraqi forces now taking on these militants?

BOWMAN: Well, not Iraqi forces but the Peshmerga, which is a Kurdish militia - and I'm told they were roughly evenly matched against ISIS forces. They both had small arms, machine guns, pretty good leaders - very focused in their fighting. The Peshmerga, however, since they are a militia and not part of the Iraqi army, they were prevented over the years from getting the best weapons by both the Americans and the Iraqis, I may add - so, like, artillery, mortars, for example - night vision goggles.

CORNISH: But you're saying that at one point it seemed as though the Kurdish forces and the Islamic state fighters were evenly matched. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well what happened was ISIS captured a lot of those heavier arms from the Iraqi weapons depots. And they were shooting this artillery toward the Peshmerga when the American warplanes destroyed it. I'm told some of the stolen artillery that ISIS has includes American 155 millimeter Howitzer's. So now the Kurds are outgunned, and the U.S. is willing to help when Americans are threatened, but they don't want to be the Air Force for Iraqi or even the Kurdish militias. And the Kurds, of course, are asking for more U.S. help and assistance and weapons. And so far, we're not seeing any of that.

CORNISH: Meantime, are more airstrikes expected from the U.S. or airdrops?

BOWMAN: Well, of course we just had airstrikes that were announced a little while ago. There was a drone that took out a mortar position outside of Erbil again. And also some F-18's took out a convoy of ISIS trucks as well as one more mortar position as well. So again, we're getting into Erbil - U.S. civilians there, military personnel - there's a real concern about protecting them.

CORNISH: Finally, Tom, politically, there's this concern that these airstrikes would or could draw the U.S. back into Iraq - so-called mission creep.

BOWMAN: Oh, that's a great concern. And the president has talked about that. He said we don't want to go back to Iraq we want to have them do the fighting. We don't want to have American boots on the ground. He came in to office wanting to end these wars, and he did so. And Afghanistan, of course, is coming to an end, but some U.S. counterterrorism officials who I've spoken with - they're very concerned about ISIS. They said the U.S. has to act more decisively. They're afraid of this safe-haven that ISIS is creating. And they're also concerned about fighters coming from the United States and from Europe, getting trained by ISIS - maybe becoming more radicalized and then heading back home.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.