by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday authorized limited airstrikes in Iraq in a bid to thwart Islamic militants, and the U.S. military on Friday started the offensive by dropping two laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece that was shelling Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
The question is whether bombing alone will do the job.
Fighters from the Sunni group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have in recent months swept through the country's north, beheading victims while taking territory in an orgy of violence, and have vowed to attack the national capital city of Baghdad.
The mayhem has put Obama in a sticky position. After more than a decade of wars in the Middle East, trillions of taxpayer dollars spent and the deaths of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops, war-weary Americans are wary of more involvement in the volatile region.
But at the same time, U.S. foreign policy circles fret that Islamic radicals could use their foothold in Iraq to launch terror strikes against the United States, just as al-Qaida -- the group from which ISIL spun off -- did when it used Afghanistan as a launching pad to strike New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
But experts said air raids without a ground contingent would not be very effective, and would have to be accompanied by Iraqi forces ready to stand and fight.
"The U.S. needs a military partner on the ground ... If not, quite a few airstrikes could be carried out against ISIL without stopping its advance," Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office, told Xinhua.
Among the ISIL targets that could be hit if an effective Kurdish front line was formed are the U.S. heavy weapons -- artillery, armored Humvees, etc. -- ISIL captured from Iraq's army, which give ISIL a firepower advantage over Kurdish forces, White said.
WHITE HOUSE IN DIFFICULT POSITION
Despite White House's promises not to use U.S. combat troops, any type of U.S. involvement in the embattled country, even if just from the air, is expected to elicit concern from critics who fret an air campaign could be the first action that will suck the U.S. into yet another major Middle East conflict.
But some experts said that scenario is unlikely, at least during the current administration, as Obama is concerned about his legacy at this later stage of his presidency and wants to be known as the leader who ended the war in Iraq.
Obama on Thursday insisted the air campaign would not amount to another full-scale U.S. military engagement in embattled Iraq, and again ruled out putting U.S. boots on the ground, aside from a few hundred U.S. military advisors that the president sent in in June.
Still, White noted that the Kurds have a number of strong advocates in the Unite States, and the White House will face intense pressure to become more deeply involved if Kurdish peshmerga troops prove ineffective against ISIL, and if Iraqi Kurdistan, along with its hundreds of thousands of non-Kurdish refugees, faces the threat of being overrun.
TURKEY, IRAN AS COUNTERWEIGHTS
White argued that the best military counterweights in such a dire scenario are the Turkish and Iranian militaries. Those two countries do not want to be overrun with refugees from Iraq, and over a million Turcoman Iraqis in northern Iraq are of particular interest to Turkey.
"However, one or both local powers may hold back their own military responses hoping the U.S. will relieve them of much of the military heavy-lifting," White contended.