Obama announces airstrikes on ISIL militants in northern Iraq

Washington: US president Barack Obama has announced the targeted bombing of Islamist militants in Iraq, underscoring the humanitarian need of the military action.

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US rules out ground response in Iraq

A White House spokesman says the Obama administration is weighing an urgent response to help trapped religious minorities in Iraq, with one option being the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The announcement in the White House followed reports from Kurdish and Iraqi officials that bombing had already begun, a claim the Pentagon denied. 

During the White House daily briefing, press secretary, Josh Earnest, said the situation was nearing a “humanitarian catastrophe” and that the administration was “deeply concerned.” Administration aides had said President Barack Obama was considering airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine to address a humanitarian crisis among as many as 40,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq, who have been dying of heat and thirst on a mountaintop where they took shelter after death threats from Islamic State fighters.

Kurdish officials said the bombings initially had targeted Islamic State fighters who had seized two towns, Gwer and Mahmour. A top Iraqi official in Baghdad close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq said that the Americans had consulted with the Iraqi government on Thursday night about starting the campaign, the government had agreed and the bombing began.

In meetings with his national security team at the White House on Thursday morning, Mr Obama weighed a series of options ranging from dropping humanitarian supplies on Mount Sinjar to mounting military strikes on the fighters from the Islamic State now at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official said.


"There could be a humanitarian catastrophe there," a second administration official said, adding that a decision from Mr Obama was expected "imminently - this could be a fast-moving train."

Mr Earnest, said the United States was disturbed by what he described as "cold and calculated" attacks by the Islamic State on religious minorities in Iraq.

Jihadists also seized Iraq's largest Christian town and surrounding areas on Thursday, sending tens of thousands of panicked residents fleeing and sparking a call for humanitarian action from Pope Francis.

Asked specifically about military options, Mr Earnest said, "I'm not in a position to rule things on the table or off the table." But he reiterated that there would be no US combat troops in Iraq and that any military action would be extremely limited.

"There are many problems in Iraq," he said. "This one is a particularly acute one, because we're seeing people persecuted because of their ethnic or religious identities."

The administration had been delaying taking any military action against the Islamic State until there is a new Iraqi government. Both White House and Pentagon officials have said privately that the United States would not intervene militarily until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down.

But administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Mount Sinjar may be forcing their hand. Some 40 children have already died from the heat and dehydration, according to UNICEF, while as many as 40,000 people have been sheltering in the bare mountains without food, water or access to supplies.

The administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly. One official said that any military action would be "limited, specific and achievable," noting that Mr al-Maliki's political party was supposed to announce a new candidate for prime minister on Thursday but had not yet.

In late June Islamic State proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling rebel-held areas of Syria and Iraq and seized the major city of Mosul. In recent days it has seized towns formerly populated by Christians and Yazidis.

Iraqi religious leaders say Islamic State militants have forced 100,000 Iraqi Christians to flee and have occupied churches, removing crosses and destroying manuscripts.

New York Times, MCT, AFP