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Updated: Sat, 09 Aug 2014 17:39:29 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Iraq conflict: Obama proposes 'long-term project' against ISIS

Iraqi Yazidi women demonstrate outside the UN offices in the Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, on Aug. 4. The Yazidis are a small community that follows a 4,000-year-old faith and have been repeatedly targeted by jihadists who call them 'devil worshipers.' Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Yazidi women demonstrate outside the UN offices in the Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, on Aug. 4. The Yazidis are a small community that follows a 4,000-year-old faith and have been repeatedly targeted by jihadists who call them 'devil worshipers.' Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama justified the U.S. military's return to fighting in Iraq today by saying America must act now to prevent genocide, protect its diplomats and provide humanitarian aid to refugees trapped by Islamic militants on a
mountain ridge near the Syrian border.

"This is going to be a long-term project" that won't end and can't succeed unless Iraqis form an inclusive government in Baghdad capable of keeping the country from breaking apart, Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House Saturday, just before boarding Marine One for his summer vacation in Massachusetts.

- ANALYSIS | ISIS success shows U.S. out of touch with Iraq's reality

Obama spoke after airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets and a drone killed several small groups of Islamic State extremists that were attacking Kurdish forces and refugees. The military support helped clear the way for aid flights to drop food and water to thousands of starving refugees.

But the help comes too late for many of the religious minorities targeted for elimination by the Islamic State group, which swept past U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi government forces in recent weeks and now controls much of Iraq.

A delayed response by the Shia-led government in Baghdad left Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Sunni extremists' advances.

Refugees seek shelter

With nowhere to go but uphill, Kurdish-speaking Yazidi refugees sought shelter in the Sinjar mountains, where their ancient religion holds that Noah's ark came to rest.

U.S., Iraqi and British cargo planes dropped tons of food, water, tents and other equipment to the refugees Friday and Saturday.

Iraq's Defence Ministry released a video showing people in the Sinjar mountains rushing to collect food and water as the Iraqi government's fleet of C130 cargo planes dropped 20 tons of aid at a time.

But at least 56 children have died of dehydration in the mountains, UNICEF's spokesman in Iraq, Karim Elkorany, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

British officials estimated Saturday between 50,000 and 150,000 people could be trapped on the mountain.

And Juan Mohammed, a local government spokesman in the Syrian city of Qamishli, told the AP that more than 20,000 starving Yazidis are fleeing across the border, braving gunfire through a tenuous "safe passage" that Kurdish peshmerga forces are trying to protect.

Some women lost their children along the way because of exhaustion and fear, and at least nine Kurdish fighters were killed while defending the columns of refugees, Mohammed said.

"They are barefoot, tired and left everything behind" in Iraq, Mohammed said. Without significant help soon, those who haven't crossed yet "will be subjected to genocide."

The U.S. military officially withdrew its combat forces in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. It returned to battle Friday when the two F/A-18 jets dropped 228-kg bombs on Islamic State fighters outside Irbil.

Impact of hit not clear, general says

Gen. Ahmed, the peshmerga spokesman at the Khazer checkpoint on the frontline outside Erbil, said it was a "good hit," but the impact wasn't yet clear. The Kurdish general spoke on condition his last name not be used.

Obama was adamant Saturday that that U.S. troops can't bring peace to Iraq.

"We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there's not going to be an American military solution to this problem. There's going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support," he said.

The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.

Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited until Monday to call in aerial reinforcements for Kurdish fighters trying to contain the Islamic State's advance. It was his government's first show of co-operation with the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government since Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, fell to the extremists in June.

And so Kurdish officials were particularly pleased by the return of U.S. air support as well as the military trainers co-ordinating tactical responses with Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

"Airstrikes are intended to degrade the terrorists' capabilities and achieve strategic gains -- and have been very effective, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd.

​Many of America's allies have backed the U.S. intervention since the Yazidis plight gained attention. British forces are co-ordinating aid drops with the U.S. and more broadly, trying to figure out how to help the refugees escape from "a completely unacceptable situation," British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said.

The Yazidis follow an ancient religion, with roots in Zoroastrianism, which the Islamic State (ISIS) considers heretical and has vowed to destroy. The extremist group also considers Shia Muslims to be apostates, and has demanded that Christians convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed.

Yazidi women seized by militants held in schools

Hundreds of Yazidi women have been seized by the militants, and their families say some were being held in schools in Mosul, said Kamil Amin, the spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry.

"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told The Associated Press.

The militants have expanded north, west and south from their stronghold in Mosul to capture Iraq's largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks. They also pushed southward through Sunni-majority towns almost to Baghdad, and now hold large parts of western Iraq as well as swaths of neighbouring Syria.

Ethnic and religious minorities fearing slaughter have fled. The UN said more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, bringing this year's total to well over one million.

Iraqi government forces initially crumbled, but have since been able to prevent the militants from advancing into Shiite-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defence.

ISIS posted a video online Saturday demonstrating their conquests, including government offices in Kurdish Sinjar and the Mosul Dam, which fell to the militants on Thursday. Militants are seen insulting Kurdish President Massoud.

Barzani by beating his picture with their shoes and slippers.

Obama said the U.S. will focus on helping refugees, eliminating terrorists, protecting Americans and keeping "key infrastructure" intact so that the Islamic State group can't permanently cripple Iraq before an inclusive government can form.

Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have "felt dissatisfied and detached and alienated from their respective governments. And that has been a ripe territory for these jihadists and extremists to operate," Obama said. "Rebuilding governance in those areas, and legitimacy for stable, moderate governing in those areas is going to take time."

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