Washington: President Barack Obama has authorised airstrikes in Iraq in defence of United States staff and of refugees who have been besieged by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant militants on the Sinjar mountains in the north.
Addressing the nation from the White House at 9.30pm in Washington, the President said the US had already begun dropping emergency aid to the besieged Yazidi community on the mountains.
Obama announces Iraq air strikes
Following ISIL's rapid advance in northern Iraq, US President Barack Obama authorises targeted air strikes.
Mr Obama said America’s top priority was the protection of US consulate and military staff who are based in the city of Erbil to advise Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIL. He said he had authorised targeted airstrikes against any ISIL convoys that approached the city.
But he said he had also authorised airstrikes to help break the siege of the Yazidis to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe. It is estimated that around 30,000 Yazidis, members of a small ancient religion that has been persecuted by ISIL militants as their area of control has expanded, are trapped and exposed on the mountain top without food or water.
"These innocent families are faced with a choice — descend and be slaughtered or stay and slowly die of hunger."
He said that he had been elected in part to end America’s military involvement in Iraq but, “When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I think the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”
"Today, America is coming to help," he said.
While the aid drops have already begun it is understood no US airstrikes have yet taken place.
A statement from the Pentagon distributed shortly after the president spoke said one C-17 aircraft and two C-130s had dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies to the thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority who had fled to mountains near the city of Sinjar after Islamist extremists seized the city.
The supplies included 20,000 litres of fresh drinking water, the statement said, an especially needed commodity in Iraq's 46-degree summer heat.
The Pentagon has denied earlier reports it had engaged in bombing earlier in the day.
Two F/A-18 fighter jets accompanied the cargo planes, but no ground troops were involved, the Pentagon said.
All of the aircraft had left the area of the drop by the time the president spoke, the statement said. There were no reports of hostile fire.
The New York Times, citing Kurdish and Iraqi officials, reported that bombing had commenced in support of a larger operation to provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of refugees trapped by the militants.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials attributed the bombing campaign to US forces. An announcement on Kurdish television of what was described as an American intervention prompted street celebrations and horn-honking by residents of towns under siege by ISIL.
Speaking after meetings with his national security team, Mr Obama - in his most significant response to the Iraq crisis - said he approved limited use of American air power to protect American personnel if Islamic State militants advance toward the Kurdish capital Erbil where they are based.
The airstrikes would be the first carried out by the US military in Iraq since the withdrawal of its forces at the end of 2011, but Obama insisted he would not commit any ground forces and had no intention of letting the United States get dragged back into a war there.
Mr Obama took action amid international fears of a humanitarian catastrophe engulfing tens of thousands of members of Iraq's minority Yazidi sect driven out of their homes and stranded on Sinjar mountain under threat from rampaging militants of Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group. Many Iraqi Christians have also fled for their lives.
"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide," Mr Obama told reporters at the White House. "I've therefore authorised targeted airstrikes if necessary."
Australia backs action
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday he welcomed President Obama’s action because ISIL had shown it had the capacity to defeat at least one army and “the potential to form not just a terrorist enclave but to create a terrorist state, in a very dangerous and unstable part of the world”.
“I thank him for what he’s doing to stand up for decency right around the world but particularly in the Middle East,” he said.
Mr Abbott stressed the airstrikes would be targeted and limited.
“President Obama was very clear in his statement a couple of hours ago, that this was about targeted airstrikes, it was about lending support to people in imminent danger from this ferocious and barbaric movement,” Mr Abbott said.
This is a limited and targeted intervention to protect people facing a truly horrific future should they fall into the hands of this terrorist movement.”
Mr Obama has made it clear that he is not contemplating putting US boots on the ground and the any sort of military action would be limited in scope and specific to addressing a core American objective.
The Kurds, located in the north of Iraq, have pleaded for international assistance as they increasingly lose control of the 1000 km border between their semiautonomous region and territory controlled by the Islamic State. They say they have been left to fend off the militants alone.
The United States is expediting military assistance to Iraq's Kurdish peshmerga forces, a senior US administration official said on Thursday, supplementing the Hellfire missiles, ammunition, and anti-tank ammunition that it has been delivering to Iraqi security forces.
"We are now expediting assistance to the Kurds," the official told reporters. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not describe what type of assistance would be provided to Kurdish forces.
Advances by the extremists against Kurdish forces over the past week have pushed into some of the most religiously and ethnically diverse areas of Iraq, sending minorities fleeing from militants who have executed those they consider apostates.
The withdrawals have highlighted the fragility of Kurdish defenses. Known as some of the fiercest and most professional fighters in the region, the peshmerga forces now complain of being short on ammunition and outgunned by militants who have seized caches of advanced US military equipment from the Iraqi army.
"What took place was a tactical retreat," said Brigadier General Azad Jalil, a peshmerga commander in the area, describing withdrawals from Qaraqosh and nearby Bartella, bringing the Islamists to within 60 km of Erbil. He said there were no casualties because the pullback took place "without a fight."
"Our capability is limited," said a Kurdish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We do not have the ammunition; we do not have weaponry."
In a statement, the ISIL listed what it said were 17 military advances against the Kurds over the past five days. It said it had launched the offensive to avenge alleged shelling by the Kurds on Mosul, which the Islamic State seized in June.
The group's claimed victories included the capture of Mosul's hydroelectric dam, the largest in the country. A dam worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, said that militants had attacked at 11am and that clashes continued for more than an hour. Kurdish forces then withdrew, the worker said, and the black flag of the militants was flying on communications towers in the vicinity.
But Kurdish authorities disputed that account, saying some peshmerga troops were still clinging to the facility, which supplies power to much of the country's north, including Mosul.
"It's true they reached Mosul Dam, and until this minute there is fighting there," said Mahmood Haji, a Kurdish interior ministry official. "There was a retreat, but it was a partial retreat, not a full retreat."
He said reinforcements were being sent to the area.
But the towns of Bartella and Bashika were lost, putting the jihadists within 60 km of Erbil. Humanitarian workers said that as panic spread Thursday, thousands of people fled, even from areas where there were no immediate security concerns.
About 3000 people headed to Erbil overnight, said Marzio Babille, the United Nations Children's Fund's Iraq representative. Some began to leave Domiz and other refugee camps, as rumours of Islamic State advances circulated in the early hours of the morning.
But others fled a more immediate threat. The town of Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida, had taken in thousands of Christians displaced from Mosul after the extremists gave them three choices: convert to Islam, remain Christian but pay special taxes, or be killed.
More to come
with Reuters, New York Times, Lisa Cox