U.S. fighter jets launched a “targeted” airstrike on Friday against Islamic militants in Iraq, just hours after President Obama authorized military action to protect U.S. personnel and Iraqi civilians.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday that two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it. The Pentagon said the military conducted the strike at 6:45 a.m. ET, against terrorists with the Islamic State (IS), the group formerly known as ISIS.
“As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against [IS] when they threaten our personnel and facilities,” Kirby said.
The strike took place near the city of Irbil, after IS used the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending the city where U.S. personnel are located, the Pentagon said.
The action comes after Obama announced late Thursday he has authorized limited military force to defend American personnel in the region and to protect civilians stuck on a mountain outside the city of Sinjar.
The strikes mark the deepest U.S. engagement in the country since the troop withdrawal in late 2011.
On Thursday, the military also conducted a mission to airdrop humanitarian aid to thousands of Iraqi civilians on the mountain.
The president warned that the civilians face a potential genocide at the hands of IS militants. He stressed that combat troops will not be returning to Iraq, but said America has an obligation to help.
“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
The president outlined two scenarios for possible airstrikes. He said he has authorized strikes “if necessary” to help Iraqi forces break the siege of the civilians on the mountain, and protect the people trapped there. He also said he’s directed the military to take “targeted strikes” against IS terrorists if their convoys move toward the city of Irbil, where the U.S. has a consulate and U.S. military personnel advise Iraqi forces.
“We intend to stay vigilant and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq,” Obama said.
The apparent impetus for the turnaround, though, was the plight of tens of thousands of people from the ancient Yazidi minority, who were forced to flee the northwestern town of Sinjar after militants took over.
According to the U.N., between 35,000 and 50,000 fled to nearby Mount Sinjar and other areas, and for the last several days they have been without adequate food and water.
“They’re without food, they’re without water. People are starving, and children are dying of thirst,” Obama said. He said they face a “horrible choice”: descend the mountain and be slaughtered by IS militants or stay and “slowly die of thirst and hunger.”
The aid mission Thursday involved C-130 and C-17 cargo aircraft. They were escorted by F-18 fighters, and all aircraft have since safely left the immediate airspace over the drop area.
Officials said they dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including thousands of gallons of water.
The crisis in Iraq has escalated sharply in recent days, though militants have steadily been making advances across the country’s north for months.
IS seized control Thursday of the country’s largest Christian city, Qaraqoush. The militants told its residents to leave, convert or die, which sent tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area, according to several priests in northern Iraq.
A week earlier, IS seized Sinjar, triggering what has since become a humanitarian crisis on the mountaintop.
The administration, along with the United Nations, has come under increasing pressure to get more involved to prevent the current crisis from worsening.
The U.N. Security Council on Thursday condemned the attacks on minorities in Iraq and urged international support for the Iraqi government. The council said that the attacks could constitute crimes against humanity and that those responsible should be held accountable.
“The members of the Security Council also urge all parties to stop human rights violations and abuses and ensure humanitarian access and facilitate the delivery of assistance to those fleeing the violence,” said Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who read from a statement after an emergency consultation requested by France.