WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday announced that he had authorized targeted U.S. airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq, scrambling to avert the fall of the Kurdish capital of Irbil and returning the United States to a significant battlefield role in Iraq for the first time since the last U.S. soldier left the country at the end of 2011.
Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Obama also said that U.S. military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State, who threaten them with what Obama called “genocide.”
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” Obama said in a televised statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
The president insisted the twin military operations did not amount to a full-scale re-engagement in Iraq. But the relentless advance of the militants, whom he described as “barbaric,” has put them within a 30-minute drive of Irbil, raising an immediate danger for the U.S. diplomats, military advisers and other citizens who are based there.
“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq,” said Obama, who defined himself during his run for the presidency in large part around his opposition to the war in Iraq.
While Obama has authorized airstrikes, there had not yet been any as of late Thursday. But a senior administration official said after the speech that as conditions in Iraq deteriorated in recent days, the U.S. had worked with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters to coordinate the response to the Islamists’ advances. The official said the cooperation had included airstrikes by Iraqi forces against Islamic State targets in the north.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials said that airstrikes were carried out Thursday night on two towns in northern Iraq seized by the Islamic State — Gwer and Mahmour, near Irbil. The New York Times on its website Thursday quoted Kurdish and Iraqi officials as saying that the strikes were carried out by U.S. planes.
The cargo planes assigned to dropping food and water over the mountainside were one C-17 and two C-130 aircraft. They were escorted by a pair of F-18 jet-fighters, the official said. The cargo aircraft were over the drop zone for about 15 minutes, and flew at a relatively low altitude, the official said.
For Obama, who has steadfastly avoided being drawn into the sectarian furies of the Middle East, the decision raises a host of thorny questions, injecting the U.S. military into Iraq’s broader political struggle — something Obama said he would not agree to unless Iraq’s three main ethnic groups agreed on a national unity government.
The decision could also open Obama to charges that he is willing to use U.S. military might to protect Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities but not to prevent the slaughter of Muslims by other Muslims, either in Iraq or neighboring Syria.
But the president said the imminent threat to Irbil and the dire situation unfolding on Mount Sinjar met both his criteria for deploying U.S. force: protecting American lives and assets, and averting a humanitarian disaster.
“When we have the unique capacity to avert a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye,” he said.
Obama has been reluctant to order direct military action in Iraq while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains in office, but in recent weeks there had been repeated pleas from Kurdish officials for arms, weapons and assistance as Islamic State militants have swept across northwestern Iraq.
The militants, an offshoot of al-Qaida, view Iraq’s majority Shiite and minority Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish religious group, as infidels.
Deliberations at the White House went on all day Thursday, as reports surfaced that administration officials were considering either humanitarian flights, airstrikes or both.
Shortly after 6 p.m., the White House released a photo of Obama consulting his national security team in the Situation Room. To his right was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. Watching from across the table were Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, and her principal deputy, Antony J. Blinken. On the wall behind them, the clock recorded the time: 10:37 a.m.
Obama made only one public appearance, a rushed visit to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he signed into law a bill expanding access to health care for veterans. Before getting into his limousine, Obama was observed holding an intense conversation with his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, stabbing his finger several times for emphasis. Minutes after signing the bill and shaking a few hands, he rushed back to his limousine and returned to the White House.
Later, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, confirmed that Obama was weighing action in Iraq and warned about the danger of a humanitarian catastrophe. But he declined to offer any details about a potential military operation, prompting a storm of questions about why, if the danger was so dire, Obama was not acting immediately.
Administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq forced their hand. Some 40 children have already died from the heat and dehydration, according to the United Nations organization, UNICEF, while more than 40,000 people have been sheltering in the bare mountains without food, water or access to supplies.
Once Obama made the decision to approve the humanitarian airdrops on Thursday, administration officials said, the decision for airstrikes became more likely. For one thing, the U.S. C-130 planes which drop the food and medical supplies fly low and heavy, and release the supplies at 500-1,200 feet.
Forces with the Islamic State are not believed to have surface-to-air missiles, but they do have machine guns which could hit the planes at that altitude, according to James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of the Iraqi army in 2007 and 2008.
“These are low and slow aircraft,” Dubik said. At the very minimum, he said, the United States would have to be prepared for “some defensive use of air power to prevent” the militant group from attacking U.S. planes, or going after the humanitarian supplies themselves.
Military officials have also repositioned satellites for surveillance. The risk to the U.S. crew of the C-130 planes conducting the humanitarian mission “would be much higher if we did not have improved reconnaissance and a protective air capacity,” Dubik said.
If ordered, the Air Force could use both drones and F-16 fighter jets which are already deployed in the region, while the Navy could use F-18 fighters as well, military officials said.
But it is one thing to use air power to defend a humanitarian operation. Offensive strikes on Islamic State targets in northern Iraq would take U.S. involvement in the conflict to a new level, demonstrating deep concern with the Islamists’ offensive shift toward the Kurds.
Ever since Sunni militants with the Islamic State took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10, Iraqis have feared that Baghdad, to the south, was the insurgents’ goal. But in recent weeks, the militant group has concentrated on trying to push the Kurds back from areas where Sunnis also live along the border between Kurdistan and Nineveh province. It has taken on the powerful Kurdish militias, which were thought to be a bulwark against the advance, and which control huge oil reserves in Kurdistan and broader parts of northern Iraq.
On Thursday, one Kurdish official, said in an interview that Kurdish troops had pulled back in the expectation that there would be airstrikes, perhaps by Turkey and the U.S. French President François Hollande pledged his country’s “support” to forces battling the militant group as well.
Watch: Replay full video of Obama’s comments
Drag the counter along the video’s timeline to replay.