U.S. aircraft launched strikes against jihadist-held positions in northern Iraq after artillery fire near U.S. personnel, as the White House called for a new “inclusive” government and said that any future additional support to the Iraqi governement would not be prolonged.
Two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 225-kilogram laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near the Kurdish region's capital of Erbil, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Later on Friday, U.S. forces launched a second wave of air strikes near Erbil, destroying a militant convoy and two mortar teams, the Pentagon said.
Shortly after 1400 GMT, U.S. drones destroyed a mortar position and killed a group of militants. Just over an hour later four F/A-18 jets hit a seven-vehicle ISIS convoy with eight laser-guided bombs.
Iraq’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, hailed the support of the air strikes, telling AFP that there will “be huge changes on the ground in the coming hours,” as federal troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces push to reclaim large swathes of land after strikes began.
The U.S. will focus on military strikes that protect American personnel and address the humanitarian situation at Sinjar mountain, until Iraq forms a new “inclusive” government, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday.
However, he added any future additional support to Iraq would not be prolonged, and that there are no plans to send U.S. ground troops to the embattled country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that “the stakes for Iraq's future can also not be clearer.”
The Islamic State's “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide,” the top diplomat added.
The strikes come hours after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized control of Iraq’s largest dam north of their hub of Mosul, giving them control over the supply of water and electricity in a vast area, officials said on Friday.
“Mosul dam has been in insurgent hands since last night,” said Holgard Hekmat, spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga force that previously guarded the key infrastructure. The capture was confirmed by the head of the provincial council of Nineveh, according to Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, ISIS is planning major strikes against Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan, a senior Kurdish official said on Friday.
“The Islamic State is mobilizing all its forces in Iraq and Syria to come and fight the peshmerga. The fight is very serious. It is existential,” Hoshiyar Zebari told a press conference.
Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the front line in Khazer August 8, 2014.
The United Nations said it was working on opening a humanitarian corridor in northern Iraq to allow stranded civilians threatened by jihadist fighters to flee.
“Now that air drops have started, the U.N. in Iraq is urgently preparing a humanitarian corridor to allow those in need to flee the areas under threat,” the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement on Friday.
President Francois Hollande said on Friday that France was ready to take part in action to end civilian suffering in Iraq, and planned talks with international partners to that end.
“France will examine with the United States and other international partners what actions could be undertaken to end civilian suffering. We are ready to take responsibility for our part.”
Late Thursday, President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq but emphasized that no American combat troops will be back on ground in the Middle Eastern country, The Associated Press reported.
Obama warned that the airstrikes would be launched if needed to defend Americans from advancing Islamic militants and protect civilians under siege.
“Today America is coming to help,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying in a televised late-night statement Thursday from the White House.
His announcement threatened a renewal of U.S. military involvement in the country’s long sectarian war.
Obama also said the U.S. military has dropped humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities besieged by militants and desperately in need of food and water to prevent a possible genocide.
The president 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.
Mindful of the public’s aversion to another lengthy war, Obama acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for concern among many Americans.
No U.S. military solution
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 dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said.
Even so, he outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants advance on American troops in the northern city of Irbil and the U.S. consulate there in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House response to the extremist group’s swift movement across the border with Syria and into Iraq.
“When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” Obama said. “That’s my responsibility as commander in chief.”
He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.
Obama spoke following a day of urgent discussions with his national security team. He addressed the nation only after the American military aircraft delivering food and water to the Iraqis had safely left the drop site in northern Iraq.
The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters from an undisclosed air base in the region.
The planes delivered 5,300 gallons (20,063 liters) of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at a low altitude.
The president cast the mission to assist the Yazidis as part of the American mandate to assist around the world when the U.S. has the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.
In those cases, Obama said, “we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.
Iraqi response to ISIS
Meanwhile, Iraq's top cleric Friday called on compatriots to unite against the danger posed by Islamist militants in the country in his weekly sermon.
“All Iraqis should unify ranks and intensify efforts in the face of this big danger that threatens their present and future,” said Sistani.
Friday's sermon marks the second time that Sistani has called on Iraqis to stand up to the advance of ISIS.
New route for Turkish trucks
In a related story, Iran has given permission for Turkish trucks travelling to northern Iraq to pass through Iran due to the advance of ISIS militants in the region, Iranian Trade Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh said on Friday.
(With Associated Press and Reuters)