US authorizes airstrikes in Iraq as Islamic militants menace minorities

As Islamic militants advance, President Obama authorized military airstrikes and humanitarian air drops to beleaguered religious minorities in northern Iraq.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Obama says he has authorized the US military to launch targeted airstrikes if Islamic militants advance toward American personnel in northern Iraq. He also has announced that the military carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid Thursday to Iraqi religious minorities threatened by the extremists.

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President Barack Obama has authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq against Islamist militants as well as humanitarian aid drops to minorities trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq. 

The continued rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) forced President Obama’s hand. The last such air campaign authorized by the White House was in Libya in 2011, though the administration has also used armed drones to attack militants, mostly in Pakistan and Yemen. 

Speaking Thursday night, Obama addressed concerns about the US being dragged into another war in Iraq.

I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.

So far, no US airstrikes are known to have been carried out in Iraq, though Iraqi forces have struck IS forces in Mosul. [Update: The Pentagon said Friday morning that it had conducted an airstrike against IS in northern Iraq.] 

Obama outlined specific preconditions for US action: IS advances closer to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish government; militants pose a threat to Americans in Iraq; or Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting IS need help to push them back from Sinjar mountain where thousands of Yazidis and other minority religious groups are stranded.

As the Monitor reported, the Yazidis are a unique "ethno-religious group which predates Islam and has roots in Zoroastrianism, an monotheistic religion that developed in ancient Persia around 600 BC.” IS considers them to be infidels and has ordered their killing.

IS killings of Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities may amount to genocide, Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative in Iraq of the UN secretary general, told the Monitor.

We believe that what they have done may be classified as genocide and a crime against humanity. Regrettably the information indicates that they are not even given the choice of life or conversion but they are being treated as a group to be eliminated from the face of the earth.

International condemnation of the targeting of Yazidis was swift. Even before Obama spoke, US forces had already undertaken a humanitarian airdrop to aid the Yazidis and others who had fled IS and are now trapped without food and water. As Reuters reported, “The Defense Department said US planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of gallons of drinking water for threatened civilians near Sinjar.”

Obama continued to put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying he needed to do more to make sure the Iraqi government reflected the “interests of all Iraqis.” Mr. Maliki is seeking a third term in office, but faces stiff resistance from Sunnis and Kurds, as well as Shiites in his own coalition who want him to share power. 

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, former American ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill underscored the regional dimensions of the threat posed by IS. “What we are dealing with is something that goes beyond just the question of Baghdad’s governance,” he said. “We’re dealing with forces there, specifically ISIS, that threaten a larger war in the Middle East.”

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