President Barack Obama said late Thursday that he had authorised limited air strikes in Iraq to slow the advance of militant fighters of ISIS and confirmed that US Air Force cargo planes had begun humanitarian airdrops of food and other supplies in a bid to save the lives of religious minority Iraqis trapped on a mountain top.
“Today America is coming to help," he declared in a late night statement from the White House. Earlier he had met with members of his national security team to discuss the growing threat to the Kurdish city of Erbil where a number of American personnel are based. Protecting American lives was the president’s first concern, sources said.
At the same meeting, President Obama also approved the start of the airdrops in response to a request from the Iraqi government. US planes have delivered food, water and medical supplies to some 40,000 Iraqis of the minority Yazidi religion who have fled into a mountainous area in north Iraq for fear of being slaughtered by the ISIS forces. US and European officials had earlier expressed concern that a human catastrophe could occur if no one intervened.
The panicked exodus to the mountains began when ISIS jihadist fighters seized the town of Qaraqosh, Iraq's biggest Christian town. Three US cargo aircraft flew to the area overnight escorted by American fighter jets. But Mr Obama was anxious to assure Americans that his decision did not mean a full re-engagement by the United States with Iraq. “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be drawn into fighting another war in Iraq,” he said.
Any strikes will nonetheless mark the first time the US has taken a combat role in Iraq since 2011 when President Obama ordered all American troops out of the country. Since the start of the ISIS advance across parts of Iraq he has consistently said that air strikes were on the table as an option. Several hundred special forces advisors are meanwhile already in Iraq helping the Iraqi military and identifying possibly targets for strikes.
By last night no actual strikes had been carried out. If they do come the main targets may in fact by ISIS forces at the base of the mountain where most of the trapped Yazidi are. They may also seek to blunt the advance of ISIS fighters towards Erbil, where some of the US advisors are stationed. ISIS, which also captured Iraq’s largest dam on Thursday, has declared its intention of creating a sovereign caliphates stretching across Iraqi and Syrian territory. .
Reports earlier today that the US had already begun airstrikes in the Kurdish region of Iraq were denied by officials at the Pentagon who added that nothing “imminent” was planned. However, it appeared that air strikes by Iraqi fighter jets were perhaps already under way.
The flight of so many Iraqi’s from the ISIS advance prompted a new statement of condemnation from the UN Security Council late Thursday. “The members of the Security Council call on the international community to support the government and people of Iraq and to do all it can to help alleviate the suffering of the population affected by the current conflict in Iraq,” said UK ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant.