Pope Francis on Monday blessed the use of force to stop the vicious Islamic radicals overrunning Iraq, but he said any intervention first must be backed by the international community.
His comments — in an extraordinary news conference aboard the papal plane — came as President Obama announced that Kurdish and Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, had recaptured the giant Mosul Dam from the extremists.
The fighters with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have swept across northern Iraq since June, driving 1.5 million Christians and other Iraqi minorities from their homes.
The retreat of the extremists from the dam represented their first major defeat in Iraq.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters returning with him from a five-day trip to South Korea, Francis was asked if he supported the U.S. air strikes authorized by Obama against ISIS.
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said.
“I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”
However, the Pope went on to say that such intervention should not be decided unilaterally, by one country.
Too many times, Francis said, countries have used the “excuse of stopping the unjust aggressor” to launch a “true war of conquest.”
He added, “One single nation cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor.”
Still, even with the Pope’s qualifications, his comments represented a shift in the Vatican’s steadfast opposition to military force in recent years.
One single nation cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor.
Last year, for example, Francis staged a global prayer and fast for peace when Obama threatened U.S. air strikes to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
The Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, signaled the evolving Vatican position when he said last week, “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.”
Christian communities in northern Iraq, which date back 2,000 years, have been evacuated as ISIS fighters took control of their towns and presented residents with a grim choice: Convert to Islam or pay a tax to avoid death. Many chose to flee.
Francis said he was weighing whether to visit northern Iraq to show solidarity with the persecuted Christians there.
The retaking of the Mosul dam culminated a three-day offensive by Iraqi special forces and Kurdish troops backed by U.S. warplanes and armed drones.
Taking what amounted to a victory lap, Obama said the return of the dam to safe hands was evidence that his new strategy in Iraq — applying selective use of U.S. airpower but committing no U.S. boots on the ground — was working.
“Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground, and performed with courage and determination,” Obama said.
“This operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight” to the ISIS fighters.
The President, who interrupted his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to return to Washington, said if “that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic,” with floods threatening thousands of civilians and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
“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 — that a group like that is contained, because ultimately it can pose a threat to us,” Obama said.
He also urged Iraq’s political and religious factions to unify around the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is set to take over after the U.S. nudged Nuri al-Maliki out the door because of his divisive ways.
“They’ve got to get this done because the wolf’s at the door,” Obama said.
The extremists took over the dam on Aug. 7, causing alarm in Baghdad and in Washington.
The seizure gave the Islamic State control over the water and power supply for millions of Iraqis. It also increased the threat of devastating flooding for Iraqis living downstream.
The dam’s failure or destruction could have unleashed a 65-foot wall of water, destroying large parts of the city of Mosul and even flooding parts of Baghdad, more than 200 miles away, experts said.
Obama spoke Monday after a fresh round of U.S. air strikes in support of Kurdish and Iraqi military operations on the ground.
The U.S. conducted about a dozen air strikes on Monday, for a three-day total of 35, destroying more than 90 ISIS targets near the dam, the Pentagon said.
The President authorized air strikes against Islamic State fighters on Aug. 8. The majority of them have been on ISIS targets near the dam.
A spokesman for the Kurdish forces, Halgurd Hekmat, said Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga had regained full control of the dam.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said security forces only “liberated a large part of the Mosul Dam.”
At least 170 bombs and booby traps placed by the extremists near the dam were disabled but many more remained, an Iraqi official said.
The Islamic State insisted that it still controlled the dam, saying the claims by Iraq’s government were part of a “propaganda war.”
Obama again warned that U.S. military operations in Iraq, while not involving combat troops, would continue for the foreseeable future.
“This is going to take time. There are going to be many challenges ahead,” he said.
With News Wire Services