President Obama said Thursday night that he has authorized two new, major actions by the U.S. military in Iraq: airstrikes against militants with the Islamic State if U.S. interests or personnel are threatened, and humanitarian assistance for thousands of civilians who have fled the Islamist advance in northwest Iraq and are now trapped on a mountain.
Even those two specific missions are more complicated than that, however.
First, the U.S. humanitarian mission on Mount Sinjar began Thursday with airdrops by military aircraft, but it could require targeted airstrikes in order to “break the siege” at the base of the mountain and allow authorities to provide more assistance to the civilians, Obama said. They would be conducted in coordination with the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdish security forces known as pesh merga.
Second, the advance of the Islamic State near Irbil appears to be a line in the sand for the Obama administration. The United States has both diplomats and military advisers in the city, which is the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The United States also has a consulate in Irbil, creating enough interests that the United States wants to protect the city from harm.
“To stop the advance on Irbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against [Islamic State] terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” Obama said. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Irbil and our embassy in Baghdad.”
Here’s what we know now about the specifics of these missions:
Humanitarian air drops
The U.S. military launched one C-17 and two C-130 cargo planes near Mount Sinjar on Thursday, dropping 8,000 prepackaged meals and 5,300 gallons of water, senior U.S. officials said. The aircraft were accompanied by two F/A-18 fighter jets, which came out of an undisclosed air base in the Middle East. The Pentagon did not indicate which units or branch of service operated any of the aircraft.
Pentagon officials said in a statement that the three cargo planes released a total of 72 bundles of supplies. They flew over the drop area for less than 15 minutes, and left the area before Obama announced the actions in his 9:30 p.m. address.
Senior U.S. officials left open the possibility that the United States could conduct more airdrops in coming days if it’s needed. That appears possible, considering human rights workers have estimated that up to 40,000 civilians may be trapped on the mountain, unable to return their homes for fear of being killed by militants.
“We feel that this is a unique and urgent humanitarian challenge,” one senior officials said Thursday night.
Preparing for airstrikes
The advance of militants across northern Iraq has been watched closely this week, but a new wave of attacks threatened Irbil in a way it had not been before, U.S. officials said. That led the president to authorize airstrikes if necessary.
U.S. officials also said that with the increased threat now facing Irbil, the United States has either surveillance drones or manned aircraft flying over the area almost constantly, keeping tabs on militant movements.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Thursday night that U.S. military advisers in Iraq will continue to assess ways to help train and assist Iraqi forces, and will provide undisclosed “increased support” once Iraq has formed a new government. Most of the troops there are U.S. Army Special Forces.
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikihas faced fierce criticism for appointing friends to key positions, allowing corruption and cutting Iraq’s Sunni population out of the political process, fueling the insurgency. A new prime minister could be selected in coming days, U.S. officials signaled Thursday night.
UPDATED, Friday, Aug. 8, 9 a.m.: U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have begun after militants launched artillery rounds at Kurdish troops defending Irbil. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, posted this tweet:
US military aircraft conduct strike on ISIL artillery. Artillery was used against Kurdish forces defending Erbil, near US personnel.
— Rear Adm. John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) August 8, 2014