WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring that “America is coming to help,” President Barack Obama is authorizing U.S. airstrikes if necessary and airdrops of humanitarian aid in northern Iraq to counter advancing Islamic militants and the threat they pose to Americans as well as Iraqi civilians.
The threat to renew U.S. military involvement in Iraq’s long sectarian war came in a televised speech by Obama late Thursday. He said American military planes already had carried out airdrops of food and water, at the request of the Iraqi government, to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities atop a mountain surrounded by militants and desperately in need of supplies.
The Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after the Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death.
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help.’ Well, today, America is coming to help,” Obama said. “We’re also consulting with other countries — and the United Nations — who have called for action to address this humanitarian crisis.”
Traveling in India, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that if Islamic militants threaten U.S. interests in Iraq or the thousands of refugees who fled to a mountaintop, the U.S. military has enough intelligence to clearly single out the attackers and launch effective airstrikes.
He also told reporters that more than 60 of the 72 bundles of food and water airdropped onto the mountain reached the Iraqi religious minorities stranded there.
Hagel said earlier that no airstrikes had yet been launched, and the Iraqis have not requested additional humanitarian aid. He said top U.S. leaders will meet later to reassess the situation.
The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war. Obama, who made his remarks in a steady and somber tone, has staked much of his legacy as president on ending what he once called the “dumb war” in Iraq.
Mindful of the public’s aversion to another lengthy war, Obama acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for concern among many Americans. He vowed anew not to put American combat troops back on the ground in Iraq and said there was no U.S. military solution to the crisis.
“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said.
Even so, he outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants advance on American troops in the northern city of Irbil and the U.S. consulate there in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House response to the extremist group’s swift movement across the border with Syria and into Iraq.
“When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” Obama said. “That’s my responsibility as commander in chief.”
He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.
Obama spoke following a day of urgent discussions with his national security team. He addressed the nation only after the American military aircraft delivering food and water to the Iraqis had safely left the drop site in northern Iraq.
The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters from an undisclosed air base in the region.
The planes delivered 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at a low altitude.
The president cast the mission to assist the Yazidis as part of the American mandate to assist around the world when the U.S. has the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.
In those cases, Obama said, “we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.
Administration officials said they believe unilateral U.S. strikes would be consistent with international law in part because the Iraqi government has asked for Washington to take military action. They also said Obama had the constitutional authority to act on his own in order to protect American citizens.
Still, there was no guarantee that the president’s threat of military strikes would actually be followed by action. He similarly authorized strikes in Syria last summer after chemical weapons were deployed, but those attacks were never carried out, in part because of domestic political concerns and also because an international agreement to strip Syria of its stockpiles of the deadly gases.
The president has also faced persistent calls to take military action in Syria on humanitarian grounds, given that more than 170,000 people have been killed there.
Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have argued that Obama’s cautious approach to Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to flourish there, growing strong enough to move across the border with Iraq and make swift gains.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Obama’s proposed actions Thursday night but said much more will be necessary.
“This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian partners” who are fighting the militants, airstrikes against the militants’ leaders and forces and support for Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist the extremists, they said in a statement.
In light of the militants’ advances, Obama dispatched about 800 U.S. forces to Iraq earlier this year, with those troops largely split between joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil.
More than half are providing security for the embassy and U.S. personnel. American service members also are involved in improving U.S. intelligence, providing security cooperation and conducting assessments of Iraqi capabilities.