AUG. 7, 2014
Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on ISIS
By HELENE COOPER, MARK LANDLER and ALISSA J. RUBIN
WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Thursday announced he had authorized limited airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq, scrambling to avert the fall of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and returning the United States to a significant battlefield role in Iraq for the first time since the last American soldier left the country at the end of 2011.
Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American 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 Mr. Obama called "genocide."
"Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help," Mr. Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. "Well, today America is coming to help."
The president insisted that these 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 Erbil, raising an immediate danger for the American 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 Mr. Obama, who built his run for the White House in part around his opposition to the war in Iraq.
While Mr. Obama has authorized airstrikes, American officials said there had not yet been any as of late Thursday. In addition to protecting Americans in Erbil and Baghdad, the president said he had authorized airstrikes, if necessary, to break the siege on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority group closely allied with the Kurds, have sought refuge.
The aircraft assigned to dropping food and water over the mountainside were a single C-17 and two C-130 aircraft. They were escorted by a pair of F-18 jet fighters, the administration official said. The planes were over the drop zone for about 15 minutes, and flew at a relatively low altitude. They flew over the Mount Sinjar area for less than 15 minutes, Pentagon officials said, and dropped a total of 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat. Mr. Obama, officials said, delayed announcing the steps he intended to take in Iraq until the planes had safely cleared the area.
A senior administration official said that the humanitarian effort would continue as needed, and that he expected further airdrops. "We expect that need to continue," he said.
The official said that as conditions in Iraq deteriorated in recent days, the United States had worked with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters to coordinate the response to militant advances. The official said the cooperation had included airstrikes by Iraqi forces against militant 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 Erbil. Earlier on Thursday, The New York Times quoted Kurdish and Iraqi officials as saying that the strikes were carried out by American planes.
While the militants are not believed to have surface-to-air missiles, they do have machine guns that could hit planes flying at a low altitude, said 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," General Dubik said. At a minimum, he said, the United States must be prepared for "some defensive use of air power to prevent" the militants from attacking American planes, or going after the humanitarian supplies.
For Mr. Obama, who has steadfastly avoided being drawn into the sectarian furies of the Middle East, the decision raises a host of difficult questions, injecting the American military into Iraq's broader political struggle -- something Mr. 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 Mr. Obama to charges that he is willing to use American 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 Erbil and the dire situation unfolding on Mount Sinjar met both his criteria for deploying American 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.
Mr. Obama has been reluctant to order direct military action in Iraq while Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki remains in office, but in recent weeks there have been repeated pleas from the Kurdish officials for weapons and assistance as ISIS militants have swept across northwestern Iraq. The militants, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, view Iraq's majority Shiite and minority Christians and Yazidis 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 posted a photo of Mr. 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.
Mr. Obama made only one public appearance, a rushed visit to Fort Belvoir, Va., where he signed into law a bill expanding access to health care for veterans. But aides suggested he might make a statement Thursday night. Before getting into his limousine, Mr. Obama was observed holding an intense conversation with his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, stabbing his finger several times for emphasis.
Later, Mr. McDonough telephoned the House speaker, John A. Boehner, to inform him of the president's plans, and other White House officials spoke with lawmakers -- all in an effort to avoid bruised feelings like those that followed the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq had forced their hand. Some 40 children have already died from the heat and dehydration, according to Unicef, while as many as 40,000 people have been sheltering in the bare mountains without food, water or access to supplies.
Still, offensive strikes on militant targets around Erbil and Baghdad would take American involvement in the conflict to a new level -- in effect, turning the American Air Force into the Iraqi Air Force.
"The White House is going to recognize that the need to commit air power to Iraq, even for a purely humanitarian mission, is going to open them up to greater criticism for their disengagement from Iraq," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "So they will do their damnedest not to get further involved in Iraq because that would just further validate those criticisms."
Ever since Sunni militants with ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 10, Iraqis have feared that Baghdad, to the south, was the insurgents' ultimate 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. An administration official said the United States would expedite the delivery of weapons to the Kurds.
For Mr. Obama, the suffering of the refugees on the mountainside appeared to be a tipping point. He spoke in harrowing terms about their dire circumstances, saying thousands of people were "hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs."
"They're without food, they're without water," he said. "People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
Correction: August 9, 2014
An earlier version of this article, and a related online news alert, based on reports from Kurdish officials, referred incorrectly to the start of American airstrikes in the region. While the Kurds said airstrikes had taken place Thursday night, the Pentagon says American strikes did not begin until Friday. Further reporting has not corroborated the reports of American attacks on Thursday.
Helene Cooper and Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Dohuk, Iraq. Thom Shanker, Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting from Washington.