WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama announced Thursday night he authorized the U.S. military to launch targeted airstrikes if needed to protect Americans from Islamic militants in northern Iraq, threatening to revive U.S. military involvement in the country’s long sectarian war.
He also said the U.S. military carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to Iraqi religious minorities under siege by the extremists.
“Today America is coming to help,” he said in a late-night statement from the White House.
The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Airstrikes were authorized in part out of concern that U.S. military trainers stationed in Iraq’s north were threatened by the Islamic State group, the officials said. The Islamic State fighters made gains toward the Kurdish capital city of Irbil.
The United States has a diplomatic consulate in Irbil as well as a military operations center that was set up recently to advise and assist the Iraqi military in that region.
Obama met with his national security team throughout Thursday to discuss the crisis as the Islamic State group made further gains.
Airstrikes in particular would mark a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government. The food and water supplies were delivered to the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on a mountain without food and water.
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.
“The situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “We are gravely concerned for their health and safety.”
In recent days, the Islamic State militants also swept through villages in the north that are home to thousands of Iraqi Christians.
Furthering their gains, the extremists seized Iraq’s largest dam Thursday, gaining control of enormous power and water resources and access to the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
U.S. officials were tight-lipped about the humanitarian aid operation in part out of concern for the safety of those involved in the mission.
Obama used the threat of an imminent humanitarian crisis as a rationale for limited U.S. military action in Libya in 2010, as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi threatened a massacre in Benghazi. The United States and NATO partners launched a bombing campaign over Libya, with Obama moving forward without congressional approval.
Iraq has been under siege for months by the al-Qaida-breakaway group seeking to create an Islamic state in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi government forces, Kurds and allied tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the militants and their Sunni allies with little apparent success
The Iraqi government has sought military assistance from the United States, but Obama has resisted.
He has cast any military action as contingent on Iraq reforming its political system to be more inclusive, a step the United States hopes would lessen the country’s sectarian tension.
Obama, who has staked much of his legacy as president on ending the Iraq war, 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 drawn into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said.
Obama did dispatch more than 800 U.S. forces to Iraq this year following the Islamic State’s gains. 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.
“There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq,” Earnest said.