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Fighting ISIS in Iraq: Questions Linger As U.S. Strikes

Image: Barack Obama

President Barack Obama leaves the podium after speaking about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Obama says he's authorized the U.S. military to carry out airstrikes in Iraq against Islamic militants if they advance toward the city of Erbil.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama has given the green light to take two very different steps — airstrikes and airdrops — to address a security threat and a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. But what comes next remains unclear.

The president authorized the airstrikes to fight ISIS, the Islamic militant group terrorizing northern Iraq, as it approaches the city of Erbil.

Erbil is strategically important because it is the capital of the Kurdish region, home of the most reliable American support in the country, and is considered a stronghold against ISIS. It also has a U.S. consulate and hosts some of the 800 military personnel that Obama sent to Iraq earlier this year.

The United States also began dropping food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Christians and members of an ancient religious sect called the Yazidi, who have been trapped by ISIS on a mountain range.

Here are some outstanding questions about the U.S. action:

How many airstrikes? And for how long?

ISIS militants, who have already seized swaths of the Iraqi north, are coming close to Erbil, where the United States has a consulate. The first U.S. airstrikes to stop them came Friday — 500-pound laser-guided bombs aimed at artillery units.

Obama, in announcing authorization for the strikes on Thursday night, said that they would be “targeted,” but he gave no indication of how long they might last or how frequent they might be.

“The president has not laid out a specific end date,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Friday.

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Can the Kurds stop ISIS?

The United States is providing additional arms to the Kurds, the most reliable U.S. ally among the ethnic groups in Iraq, as they try to protect Erbil. The Kurds have been asking for the weapons for some time.

The Kurds are the strongest fighters in Iraq, but their ability to fight off ISIS was called into question this week when ISIS routed Kurdish security forces, killed men from the minority Yazidi religious sect, and trapped women and children on the mountain.

Speaking from Erbil on Friday, Tracey Shelton, a reporter for Global Post, told MSNBC that the ISIS advance had shattered Kurdish faith in their own security forces, known as the peshmerga.

“It’s been an incredible week. It’s totally changed people’s opinion, and everybody is scared now,” she said. “No one expected this to happen at all, so it put everyone in shock and now nobody knows what to expect anymore.”

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What happens if this doesn’t work?

The next move belongs to the militants, but threats so far have failed to stop their rampage. ISIS has made a secret of neither its ruthless intention nor its ambition. It wants to establish a vast, unified, Sharia-governed Islamic state.

If ISIS ignores the U.S. warnings and continues its advance, Obama will face a decision about how far to take the military intervention.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst, told MSNBC on Friday that “we are making this up as we go, with political gestures to U.S. military power.”

“If you’re going to use military power,” he said, “you have to write down your objective and then use decisive force to achieve your objective. So I’m a little dismayed by what we’re up to here.”

How will Americans feel about all this?

Obama clearly understood that he was authorizing further military action on behalf of a country weary after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that it was morally justified and in the strategic interest of the United States.

He also said: “As commander-in-chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that more than 70 percent of Americans believe that the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting in the first place.

In the same poll, 50 percent of respondents said that the United States has no responsibility to help the Iraqi government fight insurgents. Forty-three percent said that the United States did have a responsibility.

Is this turning into a genocide?

The United States thinks it might be. Obama used that word in his speech on Thursday night, and Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that ISIS’s campaign of terror shows “all the warning signs of genocide.”

Most of the 40,000 refugees stranded on the mountain are Christians and members of a small religious sect, the Yazidi, that is closely allied with the Kurds. ISIS has threatened them with execution if they do not convert to Islam.

Reuters contributed to this report.