IRBIL, Iraq – American warplanes and drones struck Islamist militants near the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Friday, putting the U.S. military back in action in the skies over Iraq less than three years after the troops withdrew and President Barack Obama declared the war over.
The strikes were limited in scope but helped temper days of building panic across the north of the country as militants with the extremist Islamic State sliced through a string of towns and villages scattered on the outskirts of the Kurdish region and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives.
They also presented the first significant challenge yet to months of unchecked expansion by the al-Qaida offshoot, which has swept through much of Iraq and neighboring Syria over the past year, annihilating its opponents, capturing valuable resources and declaring the creation of an Islamic caliphate in a nation-sized chunk of territory.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced three separate strikes by multiple aircraft against militant positions it said were firing on Kurdish forces protecting Irbil, saying that they had “successfully eliminated” artillery, a mortar position, and a convoy of extremist fighters. Kurdish media and officials, who said the attacks had had a devastating effect on militant positions, claimed other, unconfirmed attacks that were farther afield.
U.S. officials also stressed that the American intervention was narrowly aimed at the protection of American diplomats and officials living in Irbil, where the large U.S. consulate has been swelled by evacuees from the embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. military runs a joint operations center alongside Kurdish forces.
“There are American military and diplomatic personnel in Irbil,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a news briefing in Washington. “The protection of American personnel in Iraq is a top priority and one that merits the use of military force.”
He emphasized that the authorization for air strikes “is very limited in scope” but did not rule out that there may be additional strikes to protect some of the tens of thousands of members of the minority Yazidi faith trapped by Islamic State fighters on a mountaintop.
The government of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested the U.S. intervention, Earnest said. But he and other U.S. officials made clear that more comprehensive U.S. engagement in the battle against the militants will not happen unless feuding politicians in Baghdad establish a more inclusive government capable of resolving Sunni grievances that facilitated the Islamic States' rapid expansion.
The Iraqi parliament is scheduled to choose a new prime minister, perhaps as early as Sunday, according to U.S. officials who have made clear their preference for Maliki to stand down.
The first of the airstrikes came in the early afternoon – at dawn Washington time – and were carried out by two F/A-18 combat jets flying from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. The aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece that had been used to shell Kurdish positions, the Pentagon said. The strike occurred in Makhmour, a town southwest of Irbil, according to Mahmood Haji, an official at the Kurdish Interior Ministry.
Two more announced strikes came in late afternoon, Iraq time. An MQ-1 Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles struck an Islamic State mortar position. When fighters returned to the site moments later, “the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated,” according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Less than an hour later, four aircraft dropped eight laser guided bombs on a seven-vehicle convoy and a mortar position nearby, the Pentagon said. Those strikes took place near the Khazer checkpoint on the road between Mosul and Irbil, according to Haji, the Kurdish official.
Obama authorized the strikes in response to an Islamic State offensive launched a week ago across northern Iraq, in which towns and villages occupied mainly by members of Iraq's ancient Christian minority, as well as the Yazidis, have been overrun.
At the same time, he dispatched U.S. military aircraft to drop food and water to the besieged Yazidis.