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Updated: Fri, 08 Aug 2014 12:39:59 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Iraq conflict: U.S. aircraft hit ISIS artillery, Pentagon says



FILE - In this April 12, 2013, file photo, a U.S. Marine F/A-18 Hornet jet flies low pass during Philippines-US joint military exercise in northern Philippines. President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, warning they would be launched if needed to defend Americans from advancing Islamic militants and protect civilians under siege. Obama said American military planes already had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities surrounded by militants and desperately in need of food and water. The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters. Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

FILE - In this April 12, 2013, file photo, a U.S. Marine F/A-18 Hornet jet flies low pass during Philippines-US joint military exercise in northern Philippines. President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, warning they would be launched if needed to defend Americans from advancing Islamic militants and protect civilians under siege. Obama said American military planes already had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities surrounded by militants and desperately in need of food and water. The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters. Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

U.S. fighters dropped bombs on Islamic militants in Iraq Friday, the Pentagon said, carrying out President Barack Obama's promise of military force to counter the advancing militants and confront the threat they pose to Iraqi civilians and Americans still stationed there.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also restricting U.S. air carriers from flying in Iraqi airspace "due to the hazardous situation created by the armed conflict" currently raging there.

The move superseded a previous directive from Aug. 1 when the FAA restricted U.S. airlines from flying at or below 30,000 feet over Iraq.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it. Kirby said the fighters had taken off from the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush in the Persian Gulf to conduct the mission. He said it wasn't clear how many militants might have been killed in the strike.

The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil.

"The decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief," Kirby said.

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

For the United States, it was a re-engagement in the long sectarian war from which American combat forces had been withdrawn — on President Barack Obama's orders — in late 2011.

In a televised speech Thursday night, Obama threatened to renew U.S. military involvement. At the same time, he announced that U.S. military planes already had carried out airdrops of food and water, at the request of the Iraqi government, to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities atop a mountain surrounded by militants and desperately in need of supplies.

"America is coming to help," he declared.

Speaking to reporters while travelling in India Friday, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. military has sufficient intelligence resources and assets in place to launch strikes by both manned and unmanned aircraft in the region.

Asked if the Islamic State group could successfully hide among civilians to evade strikes, Hagel said if the Islamic State moves against Erbil, Baghdad or the refugees trapped on a mountain, "it's pretty clear who they are, and they would be pretty identifiable where our airstrikes could be effective."

Iraqi and Kurdish officials have welcomed the U.S. decision to authorize airdrops of humanitarian aid and airstrikes in northern Iraq to counter advancing Sunni radical militants.

A string of victories across the north of the country by the radical Islamic State group and their allies have sent Iraq's minorities fleeing for their lives, exacerbating the country's already-dire humanitarian crisis with another 200,000 displaced.

"We thank Barack Obama," said Khalid Jamal Alber, of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq. "Kurdistan is the place for religious minorities."

U.S. won't be 'dragged' into new war

Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government. The food and water supplies were delivered to the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on a mountain without food and water. The Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after ISIS issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death.

Obama, who made his remarks in a steady and sombre tone, has staked much of his legacy as president on ending what he once called the "dumb war" in Iraq.

Mindful of the public's aversion to another lengthy war, Obama acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for concern among many Americans. He vowed anew not to put American combat troops back on the ground in Iraq and said there was no U.S. military solution to the crisis.

"As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," Obama said.

Even so, he outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants advance on American troops in the northern city of Erbil and the U.S. consulate there in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House response to the extremist group's swift movement across the border with Syria and into Iraq.

"When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "That's my responsibility as commander in chief."

He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.

U.S. can 'prevent potential act of genocide'

Obama spoke following a day of urgent discussions with his national security team. He addressed the nation only after the U.S. military aircraft delivering food and water to the Iraqis had safely left the drop site in northern Iraq.

The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters from an undisclosed air base in the region.

The planes delivered 20,063 litres of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at a low altitude.

The president cast the mission to assist the Yazidis as part of the American mandate to assist around the world when the U.S. has the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.

In those cases, Obama said, "we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide."

Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.

Iraq asks U.S. for military intervention

Administration officials said they believe unilateral U.S. strikes would be consistent with international law in part because the Iraqi government has asked for Washington to take military action. They also said Obama had the constitutional authority to act on his own in order to protect U.S. citizens.

Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have argued that Obama's cautious approach to Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to flourish there, growing strong enough to move across the border with Iraq and make swift gains.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Obama's proposed actions Thursday night but said much more will be necessary.

"This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners" who are fighting the militants, airstrikes against the militants' leaders and forces and support for Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist the extremists, they said in a statement.

800 U.S. military personnel in Iraq

In light of the militants' advances, Obama dispatched about 800 U.S. forces to Iraq earlier this year, with those troops largely split between joint operation centres in Baghdad and Erbil.

More than half are providing security for the embassy and U.S. personnel. American service members also are involved in improving U.S. intelligence, providing security cooperation and conducting assessments of Iraqi capabilities.

Officials said there were no plans to evacuate those Americans from Iraq but that the U.S. was conducting enhanced intelligence flights over Erbil with both manned and unmanned aircrafts in order to monitor the deteriorating conditions.

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