WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has authorized air strikes against the militant Islamic group ISIS if it moves on the Iraqi city of Irbil, he announced on Thursday.
He also directed the military to carry out a humanitarian mission to help members of the Yazidi religious minority who are trapped on a mountain outside the town of Sinjar, besieged by ISIS militants, a mission that is now complete.
Speaking from the White House on Thursday night, Obama said the air strikes were intended to protect U.S. personnel in Irbil, who could be threatened by ISIS’s advance.
“In recent days these terrorists have continued to move across Iraq and have neared the city of Irbil,” which is home to American diplomatic and military personnel, Obama said.
Obama said he had directed the military to go ahead with air strikes “should [ISIS] move toward the city.”
The mission to bring food and water to the Yazidi people trapped on the mountain is already complete, a senior defense official said on Thursday.
“At the direction of the commander in chief, the U.S. military conducted a humanitarian assistance operation in northern Iraq to air drop critical meals and water for thousands of Iraqi citizens threatened by ISIL near Sinjar,” the official said. (The group, whose name translates as “The Islamic State in the Levant,” is written in English alternately as ISIS and ISIL.) “The mission was conducted by a number of U.S. military aircraft under the direction of U.S. Central Command. The aircraft that dropped the humanitarian supplies have now safely exited the immediate airspace over the drop area.”
Referring to the Yazidi situation, Obama said that if ISIS continued in its goal of exterminating the small religious minority, it would constitute a genocide.
In his announcement, Obama acknowledged the irony of his ordering any kind of military action in Iraq.
“I ran for office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home,” Obama said. “Even as we carry out these two missions we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that allows Iraqis to confront this crisis.”
“Today, America is coming to help,” Obama said.
A senior administration official said on a call with reporters that the authorization for strikes extends beyond Irbil, for example if the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was threatened.
“If we see action anywhere in Iraq that threatens our personnel and facilities we stand prepared to take targeted action to protect them,” the official said. The official also said that the U.S. had authorized military strikes to protect the Yazidis if necessary to break the siege that is trapping them on the mountain.
Officials said that the administration had consulted with Congress about the president’s decision throughout the day.
A senior administration official said that the possibility of air strikes against ISIS in Iraq does not mean that there are plans to carry out the same kind of action against the group in Syria.
“This is not the authorization of a broad-based counterterrorism campaign against ISIL,” the official said.