U.S. Launches 2nd Airstrikes on Iraq Militants
Two Jet Fighters Drop 500-Pound, Laser-Guided Bombs
By Dion Nissenbaum and Julian E. Barnes
Aug. 8, 2014
WASHINGTON--The U.S. military expanded its offensive against Sunni extremists in northern Iraq on Friday, launching a second round of air strikes meant to bring a halt to the militant advance on the Kurdish capital of Erbil, American officials said Friday.
American jet fighters attacked militants with the group that calls itself the Islamic State, who in recent days opened a new front in Iraq, this time against Kurdish forces for control of the long stable Iraqi region, officials said.
U.S. F/A-18 jet fighters first used 500-pound laser guided bombs to hit a mobile artillery piece on Friday. Hours later, a second strike zeroed in on additional targets, which officials did not immediately specify.
While the initial strikes were modest, they marked the start of a loosely defined American effort to halt the surprising successes of militants affiliated with the Islamic State organization in seizing control of large parts of Iraq in recent months.
The airstrikes are meant to provide critical support for Kurdish forces, called the Peshmerga, struggling to repel Islamic State forces. The militants have taken control of the country's largest dam, beheaded Iraqi soldiers and driven thousands of religious minorities into desolate mountains where they are struggling to survive.
Earlier on Friday, defense officials said one artillery piece, towed by a truck, was destroyed in the strike.
"The enemy gets a vote," said a senior defense official. "If they stop, we stop. If they attack we bring down the hammer."
Officials said it was too soon to tell if the current campaign would last weeks or days, but said they expect more strikes by U.S. fighter jets, as early as this weekend.
The strikes were the first since President Barack Obama on Thursday authorized U.S. military action to target radical Islamic forces in the Kurdish-dominated city, where the U.S. has diplomatic and military personnel aiding the Kurds.
The F/A-18s flew from the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Pilots on the bombing missions weren't given a green light to strike targets at will. Defense officials said that Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, has broad latitude within Mr. Obama's authorization to choose targets.
Mr. Obama authorized the targeted airstrikes and emergency-assistance missions, saying the U.S. must act to protect American personnel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Mr. Obama said the goal of strikes would be to stop militants from closing in on Erbil, a Kurdish stronghold, or to allow local forces to aid the Yazidis, a religious minority forced out of the town of Sinjar by militants and into nearby mountains.
However, as they began airstrikes, U.S. officials continued Friday pressing for speedy progress in Baghdad toward formation of a new Iraqi government, a step they repeatedly have said is a key prerequisite for stability in the country. Speaking in Kabul, Secretary of State John Kerry said the solution for Iraq's problems remains a political deal in Baghdad to form a unity government, but that the U.S. has made it clear it will act.
"President Obama has been unequivocal that he will do what is necessary when it's in our interest to confront ISIL and its threat to the security of the region and to our own security in the long run," Mr. Kerry said.
Military officials said the initial drop of food and water hit the spot they were aimed for, adding it could take several days to assess whether aid is needed in other areas of the mountain. Officials said they would likely hold off a second drop of aid until they have a full assessment of the effectiveness of the first drop.
"Now that airdrops have started, the [United Nations] in Iraq is urgently preparing a humanitarian corridor to allow those in need to flee the areas under threat," said Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.'s secretary-general's special representative for Iraq.
The first strikes were aimed at militant forces putting pressure on Erbil. Before the strikes, the U.S. military was tracking approximately 35 militant trucks threatening the city.
The strikes bring to a head 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.
Until Friday, Washington had held off on any direct military involvement, preferring instead to pressure Iraqi lawmakers to form a new government that might more effectively counter the threat from militants who have fashioned themselves as the Islamic State, a spinoff of al Qaeda previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
The Mosul Dam, a key source of electricity, gives Islamic State tremendous leverage--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.
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.
U.S. officials said Thursday they had 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 return to military engagement in Iraq, a country that in its various incarnations has bedeviled American presidents for more than two decades, represents a reversal for Mr. Obama, whose early opposition to the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, and his promise to end it, fueled his long-shot campaign for the White House.
Mr. Obama acknowledged Thursday night 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."
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) on Friday endorsed Mr. Obama's decision on strikes, but he lambasted the White House as "parochial" and "disengaged" for not acting sooner or more aggressively.
Other members of Congress offered support for Mr. Obama's decision, while suggesting that further U.S. action would be needed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government on Friday said airlines should stop flying over Iraq.  All flights are being blocked "due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict between militants associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Iraqi security forces and their allies," the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a safety bulletin, using an alternate name for the militant group.
--Margherita Stancati in Kabul and Nour Malas in Erbil, Iraq, contributed to this article.
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at email@example.com