US President Barack Obama has authorised US airstrikes in northern Iraq, warning they would be launched if needed to defend Americans from advancing Islamic militants and protect civilians under siege. His announcement threatened a renewal of US military involvement in the country's long sectarian war.
In a televised late-night statement from the White House, Obama said American military planes already had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities surrounded by militants and desperately in need of food and water.
"Today America is coming to help," he declared.
The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since US troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Obama, who made his remarks in a steady and sombre tone, has staked much of his legacy as president on ending what he has called the "dumb war" in Iraq.
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.
Mindful of the public's aversion to another lengthy war, Obama acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of US 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 US 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.
Obama leaves the podium after speaking about the situation in Iraq. Photo / AP
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 US 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 authorised 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 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 US 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 US was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.
Iraqis inspect the site of a double car bomb attack took place in Kirkuk, 290km north of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo / AP
Iraqi people from the Yazidi community arriving in Irbil in northern Iraq after Islamic militants attacked the towns of Sinjar and Zunmar. Photo / AP
Administration officials said they believe unilateral U.S. strikes would be consistent with international law in part because the Iraqi government has asked for Washington to take military action. They also said Obama had the constitutional authority to act on his own in order to protect American citizens.
Still, there was no guarantee that the president's threat of military strikes would actually be followed by action. He similarly authorised strikes in Syria last summer after chemical weapons were deployed, but those attacks were never carried out, in part because of domestic political concerns and also because an international agreement to strip Syria of its stockpiles of the deadly gases.
The president has also faced persistent calls to take military action in Syria on humanitarian grounds, given that more than 170,000 people have been killed there.
Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have argued that Obama's cautious approach to Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to flourish there, growing strong enough to move across the border with Iraq and make swift gains.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Obama's proposed actions Thursday night but said much more will be necessary.
"This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners" who are fighting the militants, airstrikes against the militants' leaders and forces and support for Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist the extremists, they said in a statement.
In light of the militants' advances, Obama dispatched about 800 US forces to Iraq earlier this year, with those troops largely split between joint operation centres in Baghdad and Irbil.
More than half are providing security for the embassy and US personnel. American service members also are involved in improving US intelligence, providing security cooperation and conducting assessments of Iraqi capabilities.
Officials said there were no plans to evacuate those Americans from Iraq but that the US was conducting enhanced intelligence flights over Irbil with both manned and unmanned aircrafts in order to monitor the deteriorating conditions.
If the president were to order actual airstrikes in Iraq, it's all but certain he would proceed without formal congressional approval. Lawmakers left town last week for a five-week recess, and there was no sign that Congress was being called back.
However, officials said the White House was in contact throughout Thursday with some lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Some Republicans have expressly called for the president to take action and have said he doesn't need the approval of lawmakers.
US airdrops supplies to thousands besieged in Iraq
The US military dropped humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities besieged by militants and desperately in need of food and water, President Barack Obama said late Thursday, defending the action as helping to prevent a possible genocide.
A displaced Iraqi Christian woman holds a picture of her four-year-old relative, David, who was killed by militants. Photo / AP
Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government as the Islamic State militant group tightened its grip on northern Iraq. Its fighters seized the country's largest hydroelectric dam on Thursday, taking control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
The Sunni radical group has been ending minority communities fleeing. The country's humanitarian crisis is growing, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
"These terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities," including Christians, Obama said in a televised statement from the White House.
The US food and water supplies were delivered to tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi community 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 or face death.
Faced with the threats, some 50,000 - half of them children, according to United Nations figures - ran into the nearby Sinjar mountains.
"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain," Obama said.
He announced the airdrops only after the three American military cargo aircraft, escorted by fighter planes, had safely left the drop site. The planes delivered 20,060 litres of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals.
Officials said the US was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary.
Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Alhakim, earlier told reporters that his government had very limited resources to help the tens of thousands besieged.
"It's unfortunate, and this is why this is a catastrophe," he said.
The Sunni militant group has established its idea of an Islamic state in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Iraqi government forces, Kurds and allied Sunni tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the militants, with little apparent success.
The al-Qaeda breakaway group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming it had taken control of the Mosul Dam and vowing to continue "the march in all directions," as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has imposed. The group said it has seized a total of 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets - including the dam and a military base - over the past five days. The statement could not be verified, but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.
The Mosul Dam - once known as the Saddam Dam for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein - is located just north of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which fell to the militants on June 10.
There are fears the militants could release the dam waters and devastate the country all the way to the capital Baghdad, though maintaining the dam's power and water supplies is key to their attempts to build a state.
"With the dam in its control, the Islamic State can use water as a coercive tool in creating dependency or as a deterrent threat hovering in the background," said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "It could potentially flood Baghdad or cut off its supply."
The Islamic State militants also overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area, several priests in northern Iraq said Thursday.
The capture of Qaraqoush, Iraq's biggest Christian village, and at least four other nearby hamlets, brings the Islamic State to the very edge of the Iraqi Kurdish territory and its regional capital, Irbil.
The UN Security Council after an emergency meeting on Thursday condemned attacks on minorities in Iraq and said the attacks could constitute crimes against humanity. UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, told reporters that his country would circulate a draft resolution late Thursday on Iraq that would include a "message of condemnation' and practical measures.
"There was deep alarm in the Security Council about the speed of events," he said. He said the immediate needs in Iraq are humanitarian but that it was still difficult to assess the scale of the crisis.