WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday announced that he has 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.
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 of Iraq and Syria, 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 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 New York Times reported, citing a senior administration official. The official said the cooperation had included airstrikes by Iraqi forces against ISIS targets in the north.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials said that airstrikes were carried out Thursday night on two towns in northern Iraq seized by ISIS: 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 drop food and water over the mountainside were one C-17 and two C-130 aircraft. They were escorted by a pair of F-18 fighter jets, 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.
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.
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.
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 that drop the food and medical supplies fly low and heavy and release the supplies at 500-1,200 feet.
ISIS forces are not believed to have surface-to-air missiles, but they do have machine guns that 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.