David Jackson ---- USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — When President Obama breaks from his vacation Sunday to return to the White House, one of the decisions he faces is the direction of the Iraq military campaign now focused on a militant group that could pose a global terrorist threat.
What started as a two-pronged mission — protect U.S. personnel and religious minorities threatened in Iraq — is evolving into efforts to stop militants known as the Islamic State or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Obama and aides say they plan to maintain airstrikes while preparing Kurdish and Iraqi forces to battle the group with help from European allies.
"We will continue airstrikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq," Obama said Thursday. "We have increased the delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL on the front lines."
When the operation began earlier this month, the Islamic State had trapped up to 40,000 members of a religious minority on top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets and a coordinated humanitarian aid campaign with Great Britain helped relieve the siege and enable the refugees to escape. That eliminated the need for a large-scale evacuation led by U.S. forces, Obama said Thursday.
Future airstrikes against the Islamic State could last for weeks — or months — and will depend on a continued, ongoing assessment of the threat they pose to Iraq and the region.
"The situation remains dire for Iraqis subjected to ISIL's terror throughout the country," Obama said. "This includes minorities like Yazidis and Iraqi Christians; it also includes Sunnis, Shia and Kurds."
Obama also said the United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis.
The president, who has been vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is scheduled to return to the White House from Sunday to Tuesday for meetings that include national security briefings.