WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Friday that it launched an airstrike against Islamic militants in northern Iraq, hours after President Obama authorized American airstrikes against the rebels and humanitarian drops to aid refugees.
The Pentagon said two FA-18 fighter-attack planes dropped 500-pound, laser-guided munitions on a mobile artillery place near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
US military aircraft conduct strike on ISIL artillery. Artillery was used against Kurdish forces defending Erbil, near US personnel.— Rear Adm. John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) August 8, 2014
The jets came from the Norfolk-based USS George H.W. Bush Strike Group, an aircraft carrier operating in the Persian gulf, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military details.
The Bush Strike Group was ordered there in June to give the president additional flexibility with military options to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq, the Navy said. It's on routine deployment.
There are about 650 U.S. troops in Iraq — 470 of them to protect American personnel and property at the embassy and Baghdad International Airport. The remainder are there to assess the security situation in Iraq and assist Iraqi forces in dealing with the threat from Islamic extremists who have captured key cities.
The Pentagon also has dispatched Apache attack helicopters and surveillance aircraft to the airport. The drones and other manned spy planes have been flying dozens of missions daily.
President Obama spoke to King Abdullah of Jordan this morning, the White House said.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it is banning U.S. airlines and commercial carriers from flying in Iraqi airspace.
In a televised address Thursday night, Obama said, “When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action. It’s my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, and when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action.”
As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq, he added.
The president also announced the U.S. military had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid -- food and water -- to religious minorities under siege by the extremists on a mountain in northern Iraq. He said the humanitarian aid was to prevent a possible genocide.
Obama said the 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.
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 5,300 gallons (20,060 liters) of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals. 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.
Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary.
Iraq's ambassador to the U.N., 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-Qaida 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 U.N. 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.
U.S. Navy Ships in the Arabia Gulf:
USS George H.W. Bush, homeported in Norfolk
USS Phillipine Sea, homeported in Mayport
USS Roosevelt homeported in Mayport
USS O’Kane homeported in Pearl Harbor
USS Arleigh Burke, independently deployed, homeported in Norfolk
The USS George H.W. Bush Strike Group deployed in mid-February.
RADM Kirby Statement:
"At approximately 6:45 a.m. EDT, the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists.
Two F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil. ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located.
The decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief.
As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities."
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (VA-4th) Statement:
"The Administration has failed time and again to provide a realistic strategy for protecting U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East, bouncing from crisis to crisis without any semblance of a coherent plan. The men and women of our military, who are risking their lives at this very moment in the skies above Iraq, deserve better than foreign policy-by-crisis. Real leadership is required from our Commander-in-Chief."
Rep. Bobby Scott (VA-3rd) Statement:
“As the President clearly stated last night, there is no American military solution to the crisis in Iraq and the only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and a stronger, stable Iraqi government. The President has described the humanitarian aid and limited airstrikes as necessary to protect American troops in northern Iraq and assist Iraqi civilians fleeing the horrific threats of violence from the ISIL terrorist group. Because these strikes are necessary to protect American troops, this action is consistent with the President’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief and the President must continue to consult with Congress, as he has done. However, if further sustained military action is necessary, it is incumbent on Congress to review all the facts, debate the issue and vote to authorize any additional sustained military action.”
Rep. Scott Rigell (VA-2nd) Statement:
President Obama recently ordered U.S. forces to conduct targeted airstrikes in Iraq to defend Americans serving at our consulate in Erbil and to provide humanitarian assistance as well as a means of escape for the religious minorities stranded atop Mount Sinjar. I believe these actions are consistent with the President’s authority as defined by the Constitution and the War Powers Act.
It could be argued that this use of U.S. military force to provide a means of escape for those trapped atop the mountain has no direct connection to our national security, and thus requires prior authorization from Congress. However, the need to move quickly to prevent further loss of life of men, women and children is not in dispute, and the action authorized by the President – at this point at least – is purely defensive in nature. Importantly, providing a means of escape reflects our American character and core values, which includes a willingness to do what we can to defend the defenseless and to safeguard the most basic human right, which is life itself.
Though I agree with and support these recent decisions by President Obama, my strong objection to his past willingness to disregard the War Powers Act, and concern that he may disregard it again, specifically in Iraq, remains. Accordingly, I urge the President to present to the American people his vision and plan to elevate peace and stability in Iraq. Should that ever include the introduction of U.S. armed forces into hostilities, the President must first seek and receive authorization from Congress. It is not the king’s army.
My thoughts and prayers remain with U.S. forces currently in the region serving at American facilities.