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U.S. carries out airstrikes against Islamist Iraq militants

American warplanes struck militants from Islamic State in Iraq this morning, pulling the U.S. back into a conflict that it largely left behind three years ago.

Two U.S. fighter jets flying from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf bombed an artillery piece used by the militants to attack Kurdish forces defending their regional capital Erbil, where U.S. diplomats and some military personnel are based, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

President Obama authorized limited strikes yesterday, calling them necessary to protect U.S. personnel and prevent a massacre of Yezidis, a minority sect concentrated in northern Iraq, who have been targeted by militants. Thousands of them were stranded on a mountain after being driven from their homes earlier this week.

“I have been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military,” Obama said last night in remarks from the White House. “But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action.”

The escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq comes six years after Obama made pulling the U.S. out of the war there the centerpiece of his successful presidential campaign, and after he oversaw the withdrawal of forces from Iraq in 2011. Until now, Obama resisted requests from Iraqi and Kurdish officials, as well as calls from members of Congress, to use U.S. air power to halt the advance of Islamic State fighters, even as they threatened the government in Baghdad.

In his remarks last night, Obama said he understood that the U.S. public is wary of any return to Iraq. He said the U.S. won’t be sending ground combat troops.

“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” he said. “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”

Obama’s hand was forced by events, as Islamic State seized more territory in recent days and as he faced the prospect that thousands of Yezidis stranded in the mountains would die without immediate aid. The president’s authorization includes using airstrikes, if necessary, to break the siege at the base of the mountains.

“What the president wants and what the president gets aren’t necessarily the same thing,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, by phone today. “He clearly wants to limit the U.S. role. But the basic problem here is the kind of things he is talking about has no prospect of ending the war.”

Militants advance

The Islamic State extremist group has conquered swaths of northern Iraq since June and this week seized the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest. The Islamic State has enriched itself by seizing infrastructure and energy assets as its makes military gains in Iraq and Syria.

The dam holds back water that, if unleashed, could flood Mosul, northern Iraq’s biggest city, and wreak damage as far as Baghdad. The dam is about 80 miles from Erbil. It was not clear whether the airstrikes will affect that battle.

There were conflicting reports today on events on the ground. Hisham al-Brefkani, a member of the provincial council of Nineveh, said the Kurdish Peshmerga militia took back the town of Telkeif in Mosul as well as part of Mosul Dam today.

That was denied by Zuhair Al-Chalabi, head of National reconciliation committee in Nineveh province, who said Islamic State is still in control of cities and towns as well as the dam. Residents in the area also said Islamic state fighters are still there.

In Mosul, which is controlled by Islamic State, electricity has been cut for a week, forcing residents to use generators and conserve with their electricity use amid surging fuel prices for generators.

People in the city have been conserving and buying only essential foods as businesses shut their doors and many government employees were not paid in the past two months as large most state work were halted since Islamic State swept the city.

The number of Islamic State fighters, patrolling the streets of Mosul, have steadily declined in the past week as many joined other fighters in battles against Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga, said a Mosul resident who asked not to be named of fear of retribution said.

The Sunni militants’ offensive – and their threats to kill religious minorities – has panicked tens of thousands of people and emptied towns that for centuries have been home to Yezidi and Christian communities.

The extremists “have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute a genocide,” Obama said. “The United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”

American military planes yesterday dropped food and water for the Yezidis, who are threatened with starvation if they stay on the mountain, or slaughter if they attempt to leave.

The oil hub of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, under Kurdish control since June, was placed on high alert and the Kurd’s Peshmerga forces were deployed to the south of the city against a potential attack by militant fighters 15 kilometers away, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported.

The airstrike was conducted at about 6:45 a.m. New York time by two F/A-18 aircraft that dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil, Kirby said in his statement.

The U.S. presence in Erbil has increased in recent months, as the Obama administration viewed the Kurdish-held city as a relative safe haven from the Islamic State’s advances. In June, the State Department said some staff from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were being moved to Erbil.

The Defense Department chose Erbil and Baghdad as the location for Joint Operations Centers where U.S. military personnel, including special forces, work with their Iraqi counterparts to bring together tactical information to help the Iraqis target the Islamic State.

U.S. pursuit

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. can distinguish between militants and civilians in case the Islamic State group tries to hide among civilian populations.

“If ISIL would attack our interests and our consulate in Erbil or the green zone in Baghdad or pursue the thousands of people, it’s pretty clear who they are and they’d be identifiable and air strikes would be effective,” Hagel told reporters in New Delhi where he’s visiting to meet with his Indian counterparts.

The president’s air strike authorization doesn’t cover other areas where the Islamic State is encroaching, including Syria or Lebanon, administration officials said last night.

U.S. lawmakers of both parties said they backed Obama’s decision to provide humanitarian aid and authorize air strikes, even as Republicans said the administration lacks a plan for confronting the militants.

“The president’s authorization of airstrikes is appropriate, but like many Americans, I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement, referring to the extremist group.

Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell were briefed by the president’s aides before last night’s announcement.

Pelosi, who was a critic of former President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, said in a statement it was up to Iraq’s leaders to solve the crisis there and she was “pleased by the president’s continued assurances that he will not send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

Two frequent critics of Obama’s approach in Iraq, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said in a joint statement that the president’s actions are “far from sufficient.”

They urged the U.S. to strike the Islamic State by air and provide more military aid to Kurdish forces, the Iraqi government and rebels in Syria, where the radicals also control territory.