President Barack Obama says America “is coming to help” thousands of Iraqis who are trapped and threatened by Islamist militants, and has authorized air strikes and humanitarian flights over northern Iraq.
Obama spoke hours after U.S. military aircraft dropped relief supplies to help thousands of Iraqis stranded on Iraq's Mount Sinjar without food or water and surrounded by militants who are threatening to kill them. (Read the president's full statement here)
“Today, America is coming to help,” said Obama.
The Iraqis are largely Christians or Yazidis, members of an ancient sect who the militants have been threatening to kill if they do not convert to Islam. Thousands have fled their homes as militants with the Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) sweep through northern Iraq, conducting a campaign of terror against non-Sunnis that has included abducting women and girls and conducting mass executions.
In an address late Thursday, the president announced he ordered the U.S. military to step in.
“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain. I've therefore targeted air strikes if necessary to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there,” said Obama.
Secretary of State John Kerry also made the case for air strikes, saying ISIL's "grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide."
"For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it. ISIL is not fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. ISIL is fighting to divide and destroy Iraq – and ISIL is offering nothing to anyone except chaos, nihilism, and ruthless thuggery," said Kerry.
Facing public pressure to avoid new involvement in foreign conflicts, the president pledged to not send American troops back into combat in Iraq. U.S. officials say these operations will be of a limited scope and will not involve American ground forces.
What prompted decision
Obama said this is a case where the United States should help.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. When we have a mandate to help, in this case a request from the Iraqi government, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said.
President Obama authorized air strikes against ISIL convoys if they move toward the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where U.S. has a consulate and has posted military advisors.
The president said he authorized strikes anywhere else in Iraq where the militants threaten American personnel and facilities.
It is unclear whether airstrikes alone can prevent the advance of the militants. Andreas Krieg, an expert on Middle East transnational groups and a lecturer at King's College London, tells VOA he is skeptical of the strategy.
"This is a non-linear lineup - their frontline. It's very difficult," Krieg noted. " All you can do is strike a vehicle, pickup trucks and so on, but if they disperse and they start running around as individuals, there's very little you can do with hellfire missiles."
Krieg also questions whether the worsening humanitarian crisis can be addressed without involving ground troops.
"There is no way you can protect civilians on the ground with airpower only," he said. "If you don't put boots on the ground, there's nothing you can do to protect civilians that are under threat."