US launches airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq’s Kurdistan

Pentagon says strikes on Islamic State artillery positions came after group shelled Kurdish forces near US personnel

American warplanes carried out two separate airstrikes against advancing Islamic State (IS) positions in northern Iraq after artillery fire from the group fell near U.S. personnel, the Pentagon said Friday.

In the first strike, the United States hit IS artillery that was used against Kurdish forces defending the city of Irbil, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

Later, a U.S. unmanned aircraft attacked a mortar-firing site and four Navy fighter jets destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy outside of Irbil, Kirby said.

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The decision to strike came from the head of U.S. Central Command under authorization of President Barack Obama — who made clear, Kirby said, that the U.S. military will continue to take action against IS whenever its fighters threaten Americans or U.S. facilities, including in the capital, Baghdad. 

U.S. strikes may also target an IS position near a mountain in northwest Iraq where up to 40,000 Yazidis, a minority religion in Iraq, have fled fearing attacks. Obama said IS’s determination to wipe out the Yazidis raises the prospect of genocide; as such, the president has also authorized targeted airstrikes to break the siege at that mountain, a statement by senior administration officials said Thursday.

There was no timeframe for exactly how long the American campaign against IS would last. 

Since June, IS has swept through many northern Iraqi villages, home to religious minorities targeted by the group. The fighters also captured the country’s largest dam on Thursday.

Their advance has accelerated over the past week as they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurds’ autonomous region in northern Iraq. The retreat of the Kurds has brought IS to within half an hour’s drive of Irbil. The prosperous and — until recently — safe regional capital serves as a hub for U.S. and European oil companies, many of which have evacuated staff in recent days.

The Al-Qaeda splinter group IS has taken control of numerous cities and major oil fields in Syria and Iraq. Its stated aim is to create a caliphate and impose its radical version of Islamic law.

No sustained campaign

Speaking Thursday, Obama said the U.S. would “help Iraqis to push back” against the armed group but cautioned that it would be a limited action that did not involve ground troops.

“The president’s decision to use force in Iraq was appropriate, given the circumstances,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon said Friday.

“We must all understand that [IS] threatens both the Iraqi people and poses a clear and present danger to the United States. It is regrettable that [the IS’s] rise was preventable, but we must now look forward to the task ahead.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Friday backing the airstrikes in principle, but criticizing the Obama administration's overall response to IS.

“The president’s authorization of airstrikes is appropriate, but like many Americans, I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat (IS) poses to the region,” Boehner said. “Vital national interests are at stake, yet the White House has remained disengaged … such parochial thinking only emboldens the enemy and squanders the sacrifices Americans have made.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday took the precautionary step of prohibiting U.S. flights from crossing Iraqi airspace “due to the hazardous situation created by the armed conflict.” 

The White House has made it clear that it does not want boots on the ground in Iraq, but a small contingent of U.S. troops was already sent by Obama earlier in response to IS gains, mainly to protect the U.S. embassy and its personnel. The troops have also helped to provide security cooperation with Iraq’s military.

Those U.S. forces are on the ground in both Baghdad and Irbil and are coordinating with additional forces, as needed, the statement by senior administration officials said.

“We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against (IS) here, because our belief is the best way to deal with the threat of (IS) over the long term is for the Iraqis to do so,” the statement read. “But that does not mean that we’re not going to support them in that effort through additional assistance, training, equipping, intelligence, advice.”

The operation is legal under both domestic and international law, the officials said. The government of Iraq requested the assistance, and at home, Obama has the authority as commander-in-chief to direct actions meant to protect U.S. citizens and to further U.S. national security and foreign policy.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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