Obama Authorizes Airstrikes in Iraq, Says Threat to Irbil Justifies Move Against ISIS
President Obama emerged in the State Dining Room at the White House on Thursday night to announce "targeted aistrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death."
Obama referenced a vow he made in June to take action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, "if and when we determined that the situation required it."
"In recent days, these terrorists have continued to move across Iraq, and have neared the city of Irbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate, and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces," the president said. "To stop the advance on Irbil, I directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move towards the city. 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."
"We're also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL."
The second part of the operation -- the humanitarian assistance -- came "at the request of the Iraqi government" to "help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain."
"As ISIL has marched across Iraq, it has waged a ruthless campaign against innocent Iraqis, and these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christian and Yezidis, a small and ancient religious sect," Obama continued. "...ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide."
"I've said before the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there is a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help -- in this case a request from the Iraqi government -- and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain."
Obama said the airstrikes have been authorized "if necessary" to help Iraqi forces break the siege of Mount Sinjar and humanitarian air drops have already begun.
"Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, there is no one coming to help. Well, today, America is coming to help," he said, adding the administration mantra that the lasting solution to ISIS' reign of terror is an inclusive political process in Baghdad and government reforms.
"The several hundred American advisers that I ordered to Iraq will continue to assess what more we can do to help train, advise and support Iraqi forces going forward," Obama said. "And just as I consulted Congress on the decisions I made today, we will continue to do so going forward. My fellow Americans, the world is confronted by many challenges, and while America has never been able to right every wrong, America has made the world a more secure and prosperous place."
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that Obama "has acted expeditiously and appropriately in authorizing targeted military action and providing significant humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq at this very difficult moment when it is vitally needed."
"With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die," Kerry said. The Turks actually took lead on the first humanitarian drops escorted by their F-16s.
"We will continue to coordinate with our allies in the region and the international community to assist Iraqis to confront ISIL’s brutal ideology which poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States," he added. "President Obama has been unequivocal that he will do what is necessary and what is in our national interest to confront ISIL and its threat to the security of the region and to our own long-term security."
The Pentagon said tonight's mission was "conducted from multiple airbases within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility" and included one C-17 and two C-130 aircraft, escorted by two F/A-18s, dropping 72 bundles of supplies including drinking water and MREs.
"The aircraft were over the drop area for less than fifteen minutes flying at a low altitude," the Defense Department said. "As part of the United States commitment to allies and partners in the region, the Department of Defense maintains a robust stock of food items and water for rapid distribution if needed for a natural disaster or other crisis."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he supported the administration actions.
"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. “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."
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Obama's proposal "far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses."
“A policy of containment will not work against ISIS. 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," the senators said in a joint statement.
“We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS. This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting ISIS. It should include U.S. air strikes against ISIS leaders, forces, and positions both in Iraq and Syria. It should include support to Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist ISIS. And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad."
McCain and Graham added that “if ever there were a time to reevaluate 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," they said. "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.”
“Without immediate U.S. action, it will not just be innocent Syrians and Iraqis who pay the price of ISIL's rise," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).