WASHINGTON — The United States dropped food and other supplies by air to besieged Iraqi civilians Thursday, and President Obama authorized possible airstrikes against Sunni Muslim extremists who punctured Kurdish defenses in a powerful offensive in northern Iraq.
Mr. Obama, in a late-night statement delivered at the White House, said strikes would be launched against extremist convoys “should they move toward” the Kurdish capital of Irbil. “We intend to take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq, ... including Irbil and Baghdad,” he said.
The authorization for both airdrops, an initial round of which was completed just before Mr. Obama spoke, and for potential airstrikes, was a major new development in the Iraq crisis that began in early June.
“I know many of you are concerned about any military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” Mr. Obama said in remarks directed at the American people. “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq ... American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.”
Aircraft under the U.S. Central Command, escorted by fighter jets, dropped pallets of food, water and medical supplies to thousands of minority Iraqis who have been stranded on a mountaintop, surrounded by Islamist forces, for five days after fleeing the western town of Sinjar toward the relatively peaceful Kurdish region.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain … when we have a mandate to help, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, I believe the United States of America should not turn a blind eye,” Mr. Obama said.
In a meeting early Thursday with his national security team, Mr. Obama was briefed on options for both humanitarian drops and airstrikes as Islamic State fighters swept into ancient Christian settlements and battled at the floodgates of the country’s biggest dam. Mr. Obama convened his national security team to consider both airdrops of humanitarian aid to besieged civilians and strikes against militant positions.
Amid widespread reports Thursday night that U.S. airstrikes had begun, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said “no such action has been taken.” Iraqi officials said the government had sent its own aircraft to aid Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Civilians fled as mass panic set in during the early morning when Kurdish forces retreated from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq, and the surrounding area, putting Islamic State militants, an al-Qaida offshoot, a step closer to the regional capital of Irbil.
In one hopeful turn, an evacuation route was secured Thursday for thousands of minority Iraqis who have been trapped with limited food, water and shelter on a barren mountaintop and encircled by the extremists for five days. The civilians, largely followers of the secretive Yazidi faith, left the western Iraqi town of Sinjar earlier this week and, like thousands of other Iraqis who have fled the Islamic State this year, headed east to the relatively peaceful Kurdish region.
As the militants advanced, White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the situation “a particularly acute one, in that the stakes are very high. We’re seeing innocent populations be persecuted just because of their religious or ethnic identity.”
The Kurds have pleaded for international assistance as they increasingly lose control of the 650-mile border between their semiautonomous region and territory controlled by the Islamic State. They say they have been left to fend off the militants alone. 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.
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 U.S. military equipment from the Iraqi army. “What took place was a tactical retreat,” said Brig. Gen. Azad Jalil, a peshmerga commander in the area, describing withdrawals from Qaraqosh and nearby Bartella, bringing the Islamists to within 40 miles of Irbil. He said there were no casualties because the pullback took place “without a fight.”
In a statement, the Islamic State 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 Kurdish shelling on Mosul, which the Islamic State seized in June.“Our capability is limited,” said a Kurdish official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “We do not have the ammunition; we do not have weaponry.”
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 militants had attacked at 11 a.m. 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.
The towns of Bartella and Bashika were among the militants’ claimed territory, putting the jihadists within 40 miles of Irbil.
Humanitarian workers said that as panic spread Thursday, thousands fled, even from areas where there were no immediate security concerns. About 3,000 people headed to Irbil overnight, said Marzio Babille, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Iraq representative. Some began to leave Domiz and other refugee camps, as rumors 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. Mazin Emile, 27, said he left Qaraqosh overnight when Islamic State trucks entered. He said he asked a Kurdish soldier why the troops were withdrawing from the town, and the soldier replied: “If we kill 100 [militants], 200 more will come. They are like ants, and we don’t have enough ammunition.”
Meanwhile, the evacuation of 10,000 to 40,000 Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar ran into difficulties when the Islamic State shelled fleeing families, said Sinjar parliamentarian Majid Shingali.United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - Iraq - Josh Earnest - John Kirby