This article has been updated.
The United States launched targeted military strikes Friday against Islamic extremists in northern Iraq after they fired artillery on Kurdish targets where American military and diplomatic personnel are working.
At about 6:45 a.m. EDT, two F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on “a mobile artillery piece” near the Kurdish capital of Irbil, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “[Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil where U.S. personnel are located.”
“We know we hit the artillery piece and the truck that was towing it,” he told CNN.
Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT, remotely piloted aircraft struck a terrorist mortar position. “When ISIL fighters returned to the site moments later, the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated,” Kirby said in a statement Friday afternoon. Then, at approximately 11:20 a.m. EDT, four F/A-18 aircraft struck a stationary ISIL convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position near Irbil. “The aircraft executed two planned passes. On both runs, each aircraft dropped one laser guided bomb making a total of eight bombs dropped on target neutralizing the mortar and convoy,” Kirby said.
It was the first time U.S. forces conducted major combat operations in Iraq since the war ended in 2011.
At the White House late Thursday night, President Barack Obama announced that he authorized targeted strikes, if ISIL fighters threatened any American personnel or facilities. “We do whatever is necessary to protect our people,” Obama said. “We support our allies when they’re in danger.” But he was clear that he would “not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”
There are about 750 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, mostly around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and at the Baghdad International Airport. About 200 military advisers are working with Iraqi forces – including in Irbil, where the U.S. has a consulate.
The crisis hit a fever pitch on Thursday after Kurdish officials reported air strikes against ISIL fighters in Irbil, and thousands of Iraqis, many of them religious and ethnic minorities that have been targeted by ISIL, became trapped on a mountain near Sinjar. Officials said ISIL fighters are at the bottom of the mountain, threatening to kill anyone who comes down. Late Thursday, an American C-17 cargo plane and two C-130 aircraft dropped 16 bundles of humanitarian aid totaling 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat, or MREs, near Sinjar. A senior U.S. defense official said the humanitarian operation has concluded and the aircraft involved left the area safely.
“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 Thursday night. “Today, America is coming to help.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in Afghanistan meeting with the two candidates vying to become the next president, warned that the terror campaign now shows the “hallmarks of genocide.”
“ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” Kerry said. “For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it.”
A senior administration official said ISIL has launched a coordinated attack across “hundreds of miles” of northern Iraq. “What we’ve seen in recent days is further ISIL advances that had threatened the periphery of Irbil,” the senior administration official said. “We believe this has the potential to rise to the level of genocide.”
Army Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, chief of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, said he’s increasingly worried about the rise of ISIL fighters in Iraq. “This is a very, very difficult, dire and dangerous situation here in Iraq,” Bednarek told the Army Times by phone Wednesday. “We’re very concerned about the deteriorating security situation as well as the growing humanitarian crisis. It’s not good, and it’s not improving fast enough.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he supports Obama’s decision to strike ISIL. “There are a number of justifications for these actions, but the reasons he cited are surely sufficient. It is helpful that the government of Iraq has requested our assistance, and it would also be helpful under the circumstances, though not necessary, for a number of neighboring countries to publicly support our actions,” Levin said in a statement. “I have urged the administration to provide greater assistance to the Kurds, to assist their defense and to help them resume their protection of Christian villages in their area.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said while U.S. military action may help stop the spread of ISIL, the only real solution is a political one. “An enduring solution to the persistent threat posed by ISIL will require further reconciliation among Iraqi communities and strengthened Iraqi security forces. Department of Defense personnel in Iraq therefore continue to assess opportunities to help train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces, and will provide increased support once Iraq has formed a new government.”
On Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, continued his call for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a joint statement that Obama is right to provide humanitarian aid and strike against ISIL forces. “However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that [ISIL] poses. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” they said in the statement. “A policy of containment will not work against [ISIL]. It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped. The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become, as recent events clearly show.”
McCain and Graham recommended the provision of military and other aid to Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian partners as well as broader air strikes against ISIL, including in Syria. “And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad,” they said. And they did not miss the opportunity to hit Obama’s foreign policy.
“If ever there were a time to re-evaluate our disastrous policy in the Middle East, this is it. Because of the president’s hands-off approach, the threats in the region have grown and now directly threaten the United States. We are already paying a very heavy price for our inaction, and if we do not change course, the costs of our inaction will only grow.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who deployed north of Baghdad in 2005 and is one of two female combat veterans in Congress, initially urged caution after early calls for air strikes against ISIL. On Friday, Gabbard told CNN that the U.S. should have an “overwhelming” response to ISIL, and strike a “direct blow.”
Her comments echoed those of retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen in June, when ISIL fighters first gained serious ground in Iraq with the shocking takeover of Mosul. He urged Obama to hit them “with a hard blow.” “We did not ask for this emergency, but it is upon us, and this is a moment for U.S. strategic leadership. The Iraqis badly need our help, and our friends and partners in the region are, once again, turning to the U.S. for leadership and decisive action,” Allen said.
Since then, ISIL has continued to tear through Iraq, especially in the northern region where Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who are known as strong U.S. allies and fierce fighters, have been rapidly running out of supplies and ammunition. The United Nations said it estimated that about 200,000 people, many of them Christians, have fled to Kurdistan in the past 48 hours alone.
The UN issued a statement expressing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s outrage over the deteriorating situation. “The Secretary-General reiterates that any systematic attack on the civilian population or segments of the civilian population because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity and those responsible must be held accountable,” the statement said.
Kevin Baron and Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.