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Turning point in Iraq [Editorial]

After months of hesitation, President Barack Obama has authorized the use of U.S. military force, including limited airstrikes, against Islamic militants in Iraq who in recent months have overrun large parts of the country and now threaten the northern city of Erbil as well as tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped atop a barren mountain where they sought refuge after fleeing their homes.

Up to now Mr. Obama has gone out of his way to avoid American involvement in the multiple conflicts roiling the region, including the bitter civil war in Syria that has claimed more than 140,000 lives and given rise to a radical extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that now controls large swaths of territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

But last week the situation reached a point where the U.S. can no longer stand by as its interests are threatened and a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions looms. In recent days ISIS militants captured the country's largest dam, which provides water and electricity to much of the country, and tightened their grip on towns and villages around Erbil, Iraq's second-largest city. Unless their advance is checked it may be only a matter of time before they consolidate their control of the region.

At the same time, the militants are vowing to kill some 40,000 members of the Yazidi ethnic group who have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar in the country's northwest and whom the militants view as infidels. President Obama said Thursday that if they were to carry out that threat it would amount to an act of genocide under international law.

The refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar arrived there with little more than the clothes on their backs and are in desperate need of food, water and shelter. Mr. Obama said U.S. military cargo planes have begun airdropping relief supplies to the people there, and on Friday the Pentagon announced that U.S. fighter jets had begun airstrikes on ISIS targets in the area.

In announcing the U.S. would move to blunt the offensive by ISIS fighters around Erbil and deliver humanitarian aid to the refugees on Mount Sinjar, Mr. Obama was careful to emphasize that he was acting to protect American diplomatic personnel and installations in the region, not to re-engage American forces in Iraq's bitter sectarian wars. During a brief address from the White House Thursday he said the U.S. has no plans to send group troops to Iraq beyond the 800 or so sent there earlier this year to help protect the American embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. consulate in Erbil. A small number of U.S. military advisers are also in the country to assess the Iraqi security forces and assist in their training.

Nevertheless, the president may find it difficult to keep that commitment if it turns out that the limited use of U.S. air power he has pledged is insufficient to stem the militants' advance on Erbil or break the siege of Mount Sinjar in a way that allows the Yazidis trapped there to escape. He is no doubt hoping that allies such as Turkey and France, which have both indicated a willingness to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in northern Iraq, will establish a military presence of their own on the ground if it comes to that. But there are no guarantees the U.S. won't be sucked deeper into the conflict despite its best efforts to stay out.

The president, who campaigned on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, is well aware that Americans have grown weary of costly foreign military entanglements and are increasingly uneasy being cast in the role of the world's policeman — particularly in places like Iraq and Syria, where the nature of friends and foes seems ever-shifting. Yet he is right that the U.S. has a responsibility to prevent an impending genocide and he is right to be alarmed at ISIS' advances against the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq — both because the Kurds have been steadfast and pro-Western allies and because their army, the Peshmerga, is the most effective fighting force in Iraq; if it can't hold off ISIS, the chances that the country will collapse are all the greater. We have reached a pivotal turning point in America's long engagement with Iraq since the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, and no one should underestimate the potential dangers that lie ahead.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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