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US' Iraq strategy: The operation with no name

Too limited, vague and open to mission creep. Barack Obama's strategy in Iraq has been criticized from all sides. DW tracks the twists and turns of an operation with no name - one that looks to be expanding.

On the evening of August 7, Barack Obama entered the State Dining Room at the White House and told the American people:

"Today I authorized two operations in Iraq - targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death."

Obama gave no evocative name to the operations. He set out a limited mission: "stopping the advance" of the Islamic State (IS) on the Kurdish city of Irbil, site of a US consulate, and preventing a feared genocide against thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar.

No new war

Absent was any talk of "destroying" IS, and Obama was emphatic that he would not involve US combat forces: "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."

And yet there was a third, less clearly defined message in Obama's address: "Once Iraq has a new government, the US will work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge." Increasingly, this is under the microscope.

Haider al-Abadi

America's - and much of the world's - new hope for Iraq: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

As Obama spoke, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was clinging on to power in Baghdad after an inconclusive election. For the US, his neglect of Sunni discontent and his failure to sustain the Iraqi army had enabled the dramatic rise of IS. Even his former ally Iran agreed: Al-Maliki had to go.

Within days, Iraq's president nominated a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. He was a member of al-Maliki's party but a man seen as willing to build bridges across Iraq's sectarian divides; crucially, he had the backing of both the US and Iran. After initial defiance, on August 14 al-Maliki gave in. It was now up to al-Abadi to form the new government that Obama was calling for.

Mission creep at the Mosul Dam?

Even without that new government, the US soon moved beyond its operations at Mount Sinjar and outside Irbil. On August 15, it launched strikes in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling to retake the Mosul Dam, a crucial piece of infrastructure overrun by IS fighters.

The White House continued to argue that it was protecting Americans on the ground: "The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger US personnel and facilities, including the US embassy in Baghdad and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace."

Two men in army uniforms patrol a dam.

"The most dangerous dam in the world," says the US Army Corps of Engineers, retaken here by Kurdish-Iraqi troops

For critics, the mixed justifications sounded strained. "Obama, be upfront about Iraq," wrote Robin Wright of the public-private think tank the Wilson Center. "The United States has crossed the threshold." Meanwhile, operations at the dam were soon dominating the overall mission - taking up around two-thirds of the air strikes.

On August 18, Obama was confronted with the question of "mission creep." He answered, "We are not reintroducing thousands of US troops back on the ground." And he repeated his call for a new Iraqi government: "If we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely."

James Foley's murder: A turning point?

A day later, IS posted online a video entitled "A Message to America" depicting the murder of journalist James Foley. The message was ostensibly a demand to end the air strikes. Instead, by giving such graphic expression to the IS threat - one that had seemed distant to many - it raised pressure to step up the mission.

Wearing sunglasses anda bullet-proof vest, James Foley looks-off camera

James Foley's brutal execution both horrified and galvanized the American public

"Destroy the Islamic State now," wrote one of America's top retired generals, John Allen, adding that the group "is a clear and present danger to the US." The "Wall Street Journal" addressed the president directly: "What are you going to do about it?"

The administration's own language also began to toughen. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked if IS posed a 9/11-level threat. He responded by saying, "This is beyond anything that we've seen. So, we must prepare for everything." And he added that air strikes against IS in Syria were now being considered.

Obama advisor Ben Rhodes hinted at grounds for doing so. He described Foley's murder as a "terrorist attack against our country," opening the door to a response directed at where Foley had been held - in Syria. "If you come after Americans, we're going to come after you, wherever you are," he said. "That's what's going to guide our planning in the days to come."

Mission leap?

It was the most direct hint yet that this operation with no name might take a new leap. Elsewhere, Secretary of State John Kerry showed no reticence about talking of the Islamic State's destruction: "[IS] and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed."

Could this be attempted without a massive ground operation? Michael O'Hanlon of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank says yes. He advocates various options, involving up to 5,000 special forces troops.

An armed soldier of Middle Eastern descent stands on the rough dirt road of a checkpoint

The IS-controlled checkpoint in Amerli, north of Bagdhad, where the UN warns a massacre could take place soon

But wouldn't even this be hard to square with Obama's pledge not to deploy combat troops? O'Hanlon told DW, "I think he can be granted license and leeway now that Haider al-Abadi is forming a new government."

This harks back to the third part of Obama's TV address on August 7 - "increased support" for a new government to deal with the "counterterrorism challenge."

Brian Fishman of the nonpartisan New America Foundation doesn't buy the idea of a limited operation. He argues that defeating IS would require a much larger force and warns against misleading "American people into a war with shifting objectives."

America's top general, Martin Dempsey, also spoke of defeating the Islamic State - in political terms. "IS will only truly be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that reside between Damascus and Baghdad," he said.

But what if that doesn't happen? What if the political side of the US strategy fails?

According to O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, "Then we'll have to contain the problem as much as possible, acting out of Jordan and Kurdistan."

A crucial test looms: Can Haider al-Abadi form the new government that Obama is counting on? Given the pace of events since the air strikes began, the crisis may look very different by the time we find out.

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