Barack Obama Approves Airstrikes on Iraq, Airdrops Aid
Bid to Protect Refugees Fleeing Extremists
By Julian E. Barnes and Jeffrey Sparshott in Washington and Nour Malas in Erbil, Iraq
Aug. 8, 2014
President Barack Obama authorized targeted airstrikes and emergency assistance missions in northern Iraq, saying Thursday the U.S. must act to protect American personnel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of advances by violent Islamist militants.
The U.S. military said it completed a delivery of meals and water to thousands of members of a religious minority who fled the town of Sinjar and are trapped in nearby mountains by the group calling itself the Islamic State.
Mr. Obama said he ordered the use of U.S. airstrikes if necessary either to stop militants from closing in on the northern city of Erbil or to allow local forces to aid the Yazidis, the religious minority. No U.S. strikes had been conducted by late Thursday, officials said.
His remarks at the White House capped a day of soaring concern about militant advances in Iraq, where extremist fighters seized control of areas long considered safe and took over the Mosul Dam, the country's largest, according to local reports.
But Mr. Obama also acknowledged domestic jitters about renewed military involvement in Iraq, where America fought an eight-year war.
"American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the crisis in Iraq," he said, emphasizing the word "American."
"The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces," he said. Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement stressed the U.S. view that Iraq can only regain stability through the formation of a new, more inclusive government.
The sudden acceleration of U.S. military activity reflected White House concern over a burgeoning crisis in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. An Iraqi military official said the Iraqi air force conducted its own airstrikes in the area Thursday.
The White House and Pentagon previously have said they reserve the right to use force in Iraq to protect Americans, and repeated that stance Thursday. The U.S. troops in Erbil are part of a force of planners and advisers working in joint U.S.-Iraqi centers.
Washington has held off on any direct military involvement as the Obama administration pressures Iraqi lawmakers to form a new government.
"We are sending a clear message to the Iraqi government," said a U.S. official.
The U.S. has considered airstrikes before in Iraq, but backed down as the advance by Sunni militants slowed and the threat against Baghdad seemed to diminish. But the extremists have renewed their push in recent days, this time against Kurdish controlled territories.
At the same time, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled an advance by Islamic State militants into the country's Christian heartland in the north. It appears to be a strategic push by Islamic State toward the semiautonomous Kurdish region, so far insulated from the militant takeover of parts of Iraq and a haven for people displaced from other parts of the country.
The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session on the Iraq crisis Thursday and expressed "deep outrage" about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis--especially those from vulnerable minorities--who have been displaced and persecuted by Islamic State militants.
The latest rapid advance by Islamic State on the Christian area and the crisis involving the Yazidis are both taking place in the same northern province, Nineveh, where the militant group took the provincial capital Mosul on June 10 and sent Iraq into its worst crisis in years.
An Iraqi military official said the Iraqi air force conducted strikes Thursday in Nineveh on the city of Mosul and closer to Erbil province, and on Tikrit in Salaheddine province. The air force has bombed insurgent positions in Mosul and in Tikrit--which Islamic State took on June 11, the day after it seized Mosul--and its surroundings as part of a counteroffensive, Iraqi officials say.
Insurgents took over six towns in northern Iraq over the past two days--two of them after the Kurdish regional forces guarding them, the Peshmerga, withdrew, local officials and residents said Thursday. The 190,000-strong Peshmerga have a fearsome reputation and are well-trained, but not well equipped. Many of the more battle-hardened fighters are now aging.
"People are fleeing because there is no trust that the Peshmerga can protect them," said Yonadam Kanna, a parliamentarian and leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, one of Iraq's strongest Christian parties.
"This isn't an equal fight between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State," Mr. Kanna said. "The Islamic State has much bigger and more powerful weapons than the Peshmerga do. These people want to die and have lunch with the Prophet Muhammad. The Peshmerga want to live and go home to have dinner with their wives. They won't play as dirty as the Islamic State does in war."
The Kurdish foreign minister welcomed Washington's aid pledge but stressed that no commitments had been given to provide Kurdish fighters with weapons or ammunition to repel Islamic State advances.
In a telephone interview from Erbil, Falah Mustafa Bakir said Peshmerga retreats in recent days were calculated to protect civilians from indiscriminate attacks and didn't represent a military collapse along the lines of the Iraqi army earlier this summer.
"President Obama considering the airdrop and other military options will be an important show of support," he said. "This is what is needed, especially for people stranded in Sinjar. These people are in dire need of whatever assistance is possible and an airdrop is the only way. We also welcome airstrikes."
On Sunday, the militants seized Sinjar, a Kurdish-controlled town with a large population of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group that follows a pre-Islamic religion. U.N. groups have estimated as many as 40,000 Yazidis have fled to the mountains without food or water and are trapped there, with all access roads controlled by Islamic State. The United Nations Children's Fund said 40 refugee children have died.
The advancing militants killed some of the Yazidis who remained in the area known as the Sinjar plains, according to locals who fled and U.S. officials.
"They are unable to access food and water," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "They don't have any access to shelter...This is a terrible humanitarian situation."
The stranded Yazidis are the last surviving community in their ancestral homeland of the Yazidis, long misunderstood by the outside world as "devil-worshippers." The assault on the community is part of a pattern by extremists of stamping out non-Islamic religious observation.
Iraqi officials and aid workers say at least one airdrop over the Sinjar mountains coordinated by Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government provided drinkable water. But officials said the attempt reached only a small number of the tens of thousands of displaced.
U.S. intelligence reports on the fate of the Yazidis closely mirror dire media reports, officials said. Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi in the Iraqi parliament, said this week 70 children had died and Islamic State had killed more than 500 men. She accused Islamic State of genocide against the Yazidi populations. "There is a collective attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people," she said.
U.S. officials said they have received a formal request for assistance, but didn't say if it was from the Kurdish regional authorities or the central government in Iraq. As part of the effort to send military advisers to Iraq, the U.S. has set up coordination centers in both Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital.
The advance of insurgents into Christian areas sent families packing into cars or fleeing on foot as the militants pushed their offensive closer to the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Islamic State--a spinoff of al Qaeda that was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS--pressed forward an offensive in northern Iraq after seizing Mosul.
The Mosul dam, a key source of electricity, would give Islamic State leverage over Baghdad--if the facility is damaged or destroyed, it could flood entire cities, even Baghdad, some 300 miles away. The dam provides electricity to and controls the water supply in Mosul and the surrounding area.
Islamic State, emboldened in Iraq after seizing parts of northern and eastern Syria, aims to carve out an Islamic state across borders of neighboring Middle Eastern nations.
In their latest rapid advance, Islamic State entered Tal Keif, some 10 miles north of Mosul in Nineveh province, late Wednesday, the town's mayor said. They took over Qara Qosh, east of Mosul on Thursday morning, a security official said.
Two other towns in the area, Bartella and Karmalees, also fell under Islamic State control overnight, said Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniya. He and local officials said the latest advance has nearly purged northwestern Iraq of its Christian population.
"Those towns are now devoid of their original inhabitants. The displaced people are roaming the roads and riding whatever vehicle they can to get out," the archbishop said.
Tal Keif Mayor Bassem Bello said people also fled his town by foot, as cars jammed the road to make the hourlong drive to the province of Dohuk--part of the Kurdish region--overnight.
"The Nineveh plain yesterday was emptied of its people," Mr. Bello said by telephone Thursday. "There is not a Christian town left standing." Mr. Bello said the majority of Tel Keif's 30,000 residents fled; if anyone was left behind, he warned they were in great danger from the Sunni extremists on a campaign to seize territory and drive out Iraq's religious and ethnic minorities.
--Dion Nissenbaum, Carol E. Lee, Maria Abi-Habib, Safa Majeed, Emre Peker and Joe Lauria contributed to this article.
Write to Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nour Malas at email@example.com