President Obama confirmed Monday that combined Kurdish and Iraqi forces with the backing of U.S. air strikes had retaken the Mosul dam in what he called a "major step forward" for his overall strategy to counter the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"This is going to take time, there are going to be many challenges ahead," Obama said at a White House briefing. However, the president said a growing anti-ISIL coalition could be encouraged by the cooperation between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi National Security forces.
"If that dam was breached, it could've been catastrophic," Obama said. By combining to drive ISIL fighters from the dam, the Kurds and Iraqis "demonstrated they can work together," Obama said.
If they continue that cooperation, "they will have the strong support of the United States," Obama said.
After meeting with his national security team, Obama, who has been criticized for lacking a strategy to contain and defeat ISIL, gave the most detailed public account of his plan to root out ISIL while preserving a unified Iraqi state.
"A lot of it depends on how effectively the Iraqi government comes together," Obama said. "They've got to get this done because the wolf's at the door."
With a unified government in place, the U.S. was prepared to expand its support but "we're not the Iraqi military, we're not even the Iraqi air force," Obama said.
A unified government in Baghdad would also encourage international partners, such as the NATO allies, to support the anti-ISIL campaign with direct arms shipments, Obama said. France has already committed to delivering arms to the Kurds.
The retaking of the dam had shown that ISIL was not invincible, Obama said, and could lead some of the Sunni tribes in western and northern Iraq to go against the Islamic militants who had advanced without much resistance from the central government forces.
Obama said his main goal was to "make sure we have a viable partner" in Baghdad and a "government formation process that is credible, legitimate and can appeal to Sunnis."
"We've made significant progress on that front, but we're not there yet," Obama said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.
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