President Barack Obama announced Thursday night he had 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 had 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.
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.
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.
US airdrops food and water to Iraqis
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United State on Thursday airdropped food and water to Iraqi minorities threatened by Islamic militants and pleading for assistance, increasing the Obama administration's involvement in Iraq's growing battle against the extremists.
A U.S. defense official said the mission was conducted by military aircraft that had then safely left the drop site in northern Iraq.
President Barack Obama was to make a statement on the mission from the White House late Thursday night. His statement was following a day of tense discussion among national security officials, including over whether the humanitarian mission should be accompanied by airstrikes.
It did not appear there had been any U.S. airstrikes by Thursday night, though it was unclear whether the prospect of future attacks had been ruled out. Officials had said the strikes were under consideration in part out of concern that U.S. military trainers stationed in Iraq's north were threatened by the Islamic State group.
The Islamic State fighters have made gains toward the Kurdish capital city of Irbil, where the U.S. 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.
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.
The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
In New York, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said there was "some communication between Baghdad and Washington" on the issue of airstrikes. But none were underway, said the ambassador, Mohamed Alhakim, following emergency consultations on Iraq with the U.N. Security Council.
The humanitarian supplies were aimed at assisting 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 have 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.
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 U.S. and NATO partners launched a bombing campaign over Libya, with Obama moving forward without congressional approval.
If the president were to approve airstrikes in Iraq, it's all but certain that he would proceed without formal congressional approval. Lawmakers left town last week for a five-week recess,
and there was no sign Thursday that Congress was being called back, though White House officials did make calls to lawmakers Thursday to update them on the situation.
Some Republicans have expressly called for the president to take action and have said he doesn't need the approval of lawmakers.
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 U.S., 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 U.S. hopes would lessen the country's sectarian tension.
Obama has warned that even if the U.S. were to re-engage militarily in Iraq, it would be in a limited fashion and would not involve putting combat troops on the ground. His spokesman reiterated those assurances again on Thursday.
"There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq," Earnest 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.