DOHUK, Iraq — The United States launched a series of airstrikes against Sunni militants in northern Iraq on Friday, using Predator drones and Navy F/A-18 fighter jets to destroy rebel positions around the city of Irbil, the U.S. military said Friday.
The strikes were aimed at halting the advance of militants with the Islamic State toward Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which is home to a U.S. Consulate and thousands of Americans. The action marked the return of the U.S. to a direct combat role in a country it left in 2011.
Warplanes dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a number of targets: a mobile artillery piece that was being towed from a truck and had begun shelling Irbil, a stationary convoy of seven vehicles, and a mortar position. The military also used a remotely piloted drone to strike another mortar position Friday afternoon. After the first strike, it said in a statement, the militants “returned to the site moments later” and “were attacked again and successfully eliminated.”
Defense officials expressed confidence that they could achieve within a few days one of President Barack Obama’s stated goals: stopping the advance of the militants on Irbil.
Less certain was whether the other objectives Mr. Obama had announced — breaking the siege on tens of thousands of refugees stranded on Sinjar Mountain and protecting Americans in Baghdad — could be achieved as quickly, given the instability of Iraq’s internal politics and the difficulty of protecting and eventually evacuating the stranded people.
While Mr. Obama said Thursday night that he had authorized military strikes, if necessary, to help liberate the refugees on Sinjar Mountain, all of the military attacks on Friday were directed toward stopping the militants’ advance on Irbil.
The leader of the Islamic State sent a defiant message to the U.S. in an audio statement posted on YouTube in June, and recirculated on Twitter on Friday.
“This is the message of the leader of the faithful,” the leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wrote in a message addressed to “America, the defender of the cross.”
“You should know, you defender of the cross, that getting others to fight on your behalf will not do for you in Syria as it will not do for you in Iraq,” he said. “And soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation — forced to do so, God willing. And the sons of Islam have prepared themselves for this day. So wait, and we will be waiting, too.”
Islamic State fighters had come within 25 miles of Irbil in a rapid advance that took U.S. military planners by surprise.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that Islamic State fighters near the mortar positions had been “successfully eliminated,” although he did not say exactly how many had been killed.
Kurdish officials said the first round of U.S. bombs struck Friday afternoon in and around Mahmour, a town near Irbil. They reported an airstrike in the same location on Thursday, before Mr. Obama’s announcement; the Pentagon denied that U.S. warplanes carried out that earlier attack.
Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, have been pressed hard in recent days by the militant fighters, who have seized several towns near Irbil from the Kurds and taken the Mosul Dam, one of the most important installations in the country.
“The airstrikes are being led by the USA, and pesh merga are attacking with Katyusha,” said Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, referring to a type of Russian-made tactical rocket.
Many members of religious minorities in northern Iraq, including Christians, have fled to Kurdish territory to escape the advancing militants, who have imposed harsh fundamentalist rule in areas they control. Others — including tens of thousands of Yazidis, who follow an ancient faith linked to Zoroastrianism and are stranded in a mountainous area to the west — have been trapped and besieged by the militants. Delivering humanitarian aid to that group is one of the purposes of the U.S. operations in Iraq, Obama said.
Britain, a close ally and coalition partner of the U.S. in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Friday that it would not take part in the current military action but would provide humanitarian aid and technical assistance.
“What we have decided today is to assist the United States in the humanitarian operations that started yesterday,” the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said in London on Friday.
Turkey, a NATO ally that borders northern Iraq, said on Friday that it, too, would increase humanitarian aid to the region, news agencies reported.
Nikolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s top envoy in Iraq, said the airdrops on Friday had reached a fraction of the 100,000 people trapped on Sinjar Mountain. Mr. Mladenov has proposed a humanitarian corridor that would allow civilians to travel from the mountain to a safe zone in a Kurdish-controlled area.
But the civilians are currently trapped between front lines. The fighting would have to stop to open such a corridor, or the warring parties would have to agree to let people pass into safety.Mr. Mladenov said negotiations were underway. “It’s a matter of days,” he said. “It depends on two things. First, how successful the airdrops can be — they’ve been there for a few days; there’s no access to water, food, medicine. Secondly, it depends on the security situation on the ground.”
While Kurds welcomed Mr. Obama’s announcement of U.S. assistance, the reaction in Baghdad was mixed.
“Obama’s speech did not delight Iraqis,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a leader of a main Shiite bloc in Parliament, the Sadr faction, who were among the strongest opponents of U.S. involvement in Iraq. “They are looking out for their own interests, not for ours.”
Another Shiite leader, Sami al-Askari, who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saidMr. Obama’s call for airstrikes had come “too late.”