U.S. begins airstrikes in Iraq amid genocide fears
For the first time since 2011, two rounds of U.S. airstrikes hit ISIS artillery targets Friday in northern Iraq, and the White House asserted there would be no heightened U.S. military assistance in Baghdad before the formation of an "inclusive" governement unified the country.
In the first bout of strikes, two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on ISIS artillery units outside Irbil. An anoymous U.S. official told the AP a second round of targets were hit late Friday using four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets and and an unmanned aircraft, destroying mortar and a 7-vehicle convoy.
President Obama announced Thursday he had authorized the use of limited airstrikes in Iraq to prevent a feared genocide of Iraq's minority sects by ISIS militants and to protect American personnel working in the country. The decision came after deadly advancements by ISIS militants, who are within "half-hour's drive" of Irbil — the Kurdish capital and home of U.S.'s main oil hub, consolate and military training site in northern Iraq.
In the last few weeks, militants have overwhelmed Kurdish troops and driven out religious minorities with an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face execution. Most recently, fighters drove out members of Iraq's Yazidi sect from their homes in northern Iraq and surrounded the Sinjar mountains where they took refuge.
Before executing the airstrikes on ISIS targets, a U.S. airdrop delivered water and food supplies to the trapped Yazidis. A second, larger round of humanitarian deliveries was carried out Saturday in the same area.
While current airstrikes aim to avoid ISIS advancement and the demolition of Iraq's minority sects, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told Reuters the U.S. had no intention of sending troops to Iraq or to have a lengthy military operation in the country.
The White House also called on Kurdish and Iraqi forces to unify in driving militants from the country. Some believe the call for country unity suggests U.S. doubt about whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should remain in office if the country is to reach longer-term peace.
In Washington, concerns were also raised about whether the limited military action in Irbil would really be an effective means to change the power balance between Iraqi and Kurdish forces and ISIS militants.
In response to the airstrikes, militants have called for heightened aggression toward the U.S. on online jihadi forums and asserted that attacks on their shelling artillery would not slow their advances. One militant said the U.S. had "attack[ed] positions they think are strategic," but that it was ineffectual as ISIS fighters were "trained for guerrilla street war.” Later Fridy, an Iraqi official told the AP more than 100 Yazidi women were seized by militants and taken hostage inside Mosul schools.
In the Kurdish capital, news of the U.S. airstrikes was met with immense relief. The AP reported hundreds of displaced men lined the streets of the city's Christian neighborhoods after the annnouncement and expressed support for U.S. military aid to rid the country of crushing militant control.
Since June, ISIS fighters have stormed through Iraq and past Iraqi military operations to stall them. Amid new U.S. involvement, White House spokesperson Earnest said Kurdish forces showed more promise in the fight against the militants.
But the ISIS threat is not easy to take on. Speaking with the AP, Kurdish Capt. Ziyran Mahmoud said militants detonated suicide belt bombs upon Kurdish troop advancement, killing both Kurds and ISIS fighters in a single blast.
"They are ready to blow themselves up and die," he said to the AP. "But the peshmerga aren't afraid. We are also ready to die for our homeland."