WASHINGTON - American aircraft bombed positions held by Islamic State insurgents in northern Iraq on Friday in the first major US military action since it withdrew troops, the Pentagon said.
A day after President Barack Obama publicly authorized the use of force to avert a “genocide,” US jets struck after guerrillas shelled positions near the Kurdish region’s capital of Arbil.
Two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound (225-kilogram) laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist movement that has swept across Iraq and Syria, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
Obama also announced the use of airstrikes to protect humanitarian aid to mainly religious minorities who had moved to and become trapped in mountaintops.
“We do whatever is necessary to protect our people. We support our allies when they’re in danger,” Obama said.
“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” he added.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials said the airstrikes had already taken place, though the Pentagon denied any attacks had started, The New York Times reported.
The announcement comes as religious minorities in Iraq, including Christians, fled militants operating under the name the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
A key concern for US officials: dozens of American consular staff and military advisers working with the Iraqi military in Irbil, the largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Obama said Thursday he’d directed the military to take targeted strikes against Islamist militants “should they move towards the city.”
Rapid developments on the ground, where a humanitarian crisis is emerging with minority groups facing possible slaughter by Sunni Muslim extremists, have set the stage for an increasingly dire situation.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, in this case a request from the Iraqi government, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
The potential escalation of US military involvement comes two years after Obama ended the Iraq war and brought home American forces.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that there is no chance of ground troops heading back.
Obama acknowledged that many Americans are concerned about military action in Iraq.
“As Commander in Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq, so as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” Obama said.
The President’s announcement that he’d authorized airstrikes came after the United States airdropped meals and water in Iraq, sending humanitarian aid to trapped minority groups. “The mission was conducted by a number of US military aircraft under the direction of US Central Command,” a senior US defence official said. “The aircraft that dropped the humanitarian supplies have now safely exited the immediate airspace over the drop area.”
Meanwhile, with more of Iraq taken over by the Islamic State militants, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL), the UN Security Council has condemned the terrorists attacks on Iraqi cities and villages.
At an emergency meeting on Thursday evening, the UN Security Council members issued a press statement expressing “their deep outrage about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - many of them from vulnerable minority communities, especially Yazidis and Christians - displaced by ISIL’s attacks and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.”Earlier, UN Deputy Special Representative in Iraq Gyorgy Busztin said that “many are in locations that are inaccessible, including those who have been trapped for over five days on Jabal Sinjar mountain - women, children, aged people and people with disabilities and those in need of medical assistance.”
Amid reports of airdrops of aid, the Security Council said that its members “welcome the Government of Iraq’s efforts, in association with local and regional authorities and in cooperation with the United Nations, to address the urgent humanitarian needs of those displaced by the current conflict and to combat the terrorist threat facing all Iraqis, and call for an intensification of these efforts.”
On the political front, the Security Council statement urged all entities “to overcome divisions and work together in an inclusive and urgent political process to strengthen Iraq’s national unity, sovereignty and independence and for Iraq’s leaders to engage, as quickly as possible, to form a Government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.”
Beyond Thursday's Security Council press statement, a draft resolution on Iraq is being negotiated.
“The members of the Security Council condemn in the strongest terms the systematic persecution of individuals from minority populations and those who refuse the extremist ideology of ISIL and associated armed groups,” the statement said, reiterating that widespread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, political grounds, religion or belief may constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible must be held accountable.
Echoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Council members called on the international community to support the Government and people of Iraq and to do all it can to help alleviate the suffering of the population affected by the current conflict in Iraq.
The Council further called on all political entities to overcome divisions and work together “in an inclusive and urgent political process” to strengthen Iraq’s national unity, sovereignty and independence. Iraq’s leaders were also called on to engage, “as quickly as possible”, to form a Government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.
Meanwhile, The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said ISIL and associated armed groups have overrun areas in the Ninewa plains and Shirkhan districts of Ninewa, with fighting continuing between ISIL and the Kurdish forces along border areas of the Kurdistan Region in the vicinity of Makhmour.
Media reports suggest that ISIS militants are also battling to seize the country’s largest dam, located in Mosul.
Over the last 48 hours 200,000 civilians have fled the advance of ISIL, with at least 180,000 crossed into Dohuk district of the Kurdistan Region, UNAMI said.
This in addition to large numbers of civilians displaced as a result of the ISIL advance into Sinjar and Tal Afar districts of Ninewa Governorate that took place on 2-3 August, which resulted in up to 200,000 predominantly Yezidi civilians becoming trapped on Jabal Sinjar in territory now controlled by ISIL.
“With the conflict ongoing, many more civilians are expected to flee the fighting,” says the Mission, explaining that many of those displaced or directly affected by the violence belong to Iraq’s minority religious and ethnic communities - including Yezidi, Christians, Shabak, Turkomen and others.