WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama has begun to prepare Americans for the prospect of a long-term military commitment to Iraq, warning Monday that operations there won't end any time soon.
After spending his first presidential term getting the U.S. military out of that country, he's made it increasingly clear that the return to fight against Islamist rebels will be a prolonged reality of his second term.
He continues to stress that any American role will be small, surgical and won't include the full-scale deployment of combat troops. But the occasional airstrike, and the involvement of U.S. military advisers, isn't ending any time soon.
"This is going to take time," he said during a White House news conference on Monday.
"There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I've authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Irbil and Baghdad, and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar."
Obama had launched airstrikes in recent days — first, to repel rebels from the Kurdish area where there are American diplomats and oil interests, and to help stranded Yazidi refugees escape a mountain siege; then more recently to reclaim a vital dam that protects the capital, Baghdad.
On Monday, he made it clear the effort won't end there.
Obama mentioned Canada and four other countries offering humanitarian help amid the crisis. The Canadian government has offered $5 million in humanitarian aid, along with two military cargo planes being used to ship weapons to Kurdish fighters.
"Going forward, the United States will work with the Iraqi government, as well as partners like the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy and Australia to get food and water to people in need and to bring long-term relief to people who have been driven from their homes," Obama said.
"We will (also) continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against (the rebels) by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region and beyond."
The Canadian government is also prepared to do more.
"Canada remains committed to providing assistance to the thousands of Iraqi children, women and men, including Yazidis and Christians, who desperately need it in the face of ... repugnant terrorist attacks," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
"We will continue to work with our allies closely and monitor the situation in Iraq. As we've said, we are prepared to provide further assistance, but I have nothing to announce at this point."
Numerous polls in recent months suggest the American people are skeptical about ramped-up military engagement, following more than a decade of war.
Obama was asked Monday how he could guard against so-called mission creep — the possibility that the airstrikes might increase in intensity, and that the current coterie of military advisers might see their ranks and role grow, as happened in Vietnam.
"I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops back on the ground to engage in combat. We're not the Iraqi military," he replied.
"We're not even the Iraqi air force. I am the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces. And Iraq is going to have to ultimately provide for its own security.
"On the other hand, we've got a national security interest in making sure our people are protected and in making sure that a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed to them, that a group like that is contained because ultimately it can pose a threat to us."
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