U. S. Approves Targeted Airstrikes on Iraq, Starts Aid Airdrops After ISIS Captures Largest Christian City

Iraqi Christians who fled violence in their village arrive at a church in the Kurdish city of Erbil on Thursday. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
Iraqi Christians who fled violence in their village arrive at a church in the Kurdish city of Erbil on Thursday. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama authorized targeted airstrikes and emergency assistance missions in northern Iraq, saying Thursday the U.S. must act to protect American personnel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of advances by violent Islamist militants.

The U.S. military said it completed a delivery of meals and water to thousands of members of a religious minority who fled the town of Sinjar and are trapped in nearby mountains by the group calling itself the Islamic State.

Mr. Obama said he ordered the use of U.S. airstrikes if necessary either to stop militants from closing in on the northern city of Erbil or to allow local forces to aid the Yazidis, the religious minority. No U.S. strikes had been conducted by late Thursday, officials said.

His remarks at the White House capped a day of soaring concern about militant advances in Iraq, where extremist fighters seized control of areas long considered safe and took over the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, according to local reports.

But Mr. Obama also acknowledged domestic jitters about renewed military involvement in Iraq, where America fought an eight-year war.

“American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the crisis in Iraq,” he said, emphasizing the word “American.”

“The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces,” he said. Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement stressed the U.S. view that Iraq can only regain stability through the formation of a new, more inclusive government.

The sudden acceleration of U.S. military activity reflected White House concern over a burgeoning crisis in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. An Iraqi military official said the Iraqi air force conducted its own airstrikes in the area Thursday.

The White House and Pentagon previously have said they reserve the right to use force in Iraq to protect Americans, and repeated that stance Thursday. The U.S. troops in Erbil are part of a force of planners and advisers working in joint U.S.-Iraqi centers.

Washington has held off on any direct military involvement as the Obama administration pressures Iraqi lawmakers to form a new government.

“We are sending a clear message to the Iraqi government,” said a U.S. official.

The U.S. has considered airstrikes before in Iraq, but backed down as the advance by Sunni militants slowed and the threat against Baghdad seemed to diminish. But the extremists have renewed their push in recent days, this time against Kurdish controlled territories.

At the same time, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled an advance by Islamic State militants into the country’s Christian heartland in the north. It appears to be a strategic push by Islamic State toward the semiautonomous Kurdish region, so far insulated from the militant takeover of parts of Iraq and a haven for people displaced from other parts of the country.

The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session on the Iraq crisis Thursday and expressed “deep outrage” about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—especially those from vulnerable minorities—who have been displaced and persecuted by Islamic State militants.

The latest rapid advance by Islamic State on the Christian area and the crisis involving the Yazidis are both taking place in the same northern province, Nineveh, where the militant group took the provincial capital Mosul on June 10 and sent Iraq into its worst crisis in years.

An Iraqi military official said the Iraqi air force conducted strikes Thursday in Nineveh on the city of Mosul and closer to Erbil province, and on Tikrit in Salaheddine province. The air force has bombed insurgent positions in Mosul and in Tikrit—which Islamic State took on June 11, the day after it seized Mosul—and its surroundings as part of a counteroffensive, Iraqi officials say.

Insurgents took over six towns in northern Iraq over the past two days—two of them after the Kurdish regional forces guarding them, the Peshmerga, withdrew, local officials and residents said Thursday. The 190,000-strong Peshmerga have a fearsome reputation and are well-trained, but not well equipped. Many of the more battle-hardened fighters are now aging.

“People are fleeing because there is no trust that the Peshmerga can protect them,” said Yonadam Kanna, a parliamentarian and leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, one of Iraq’s strongest Christian parties.

“This isn’t an equal fight between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State,” Mr. Kanna said. “The Islamic State has much bigger and more powerful weapons than the Peshmerga do. These people want to die and have lunch with the Prophet Muhammad. The Peshmerga want to live and go home to have dinner with their wives. They won’t play as dirty as the Islamic State does in war.”

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Julian E. Barnes, Jeffey Sparshot, and Nour Malas

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