Obama says he has authorized air strikes in Iraq
In a nationally televised address, President Obama said he had also authorized targeted air strikes "to protect American personnel," citing an Islamic State advance on the city of Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
But Obama indicated that such strikes had not yet been made and stressed that he did not intend a massive military campaign.
"I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq," he said.
"The mission was conducted by a number of U.S. military aircraft under the direction of U.S. Central Command," the Pentagon statement said. "The aircraft that dropped the humanitarian supplies have now safely exited the immediate airspace over the drop area."
The announcement came after a tumultuous day that saw the Islamic State capture a string of towns that brought its forces to within minutes of Irbil. Kurdish peshmerga militia rushed to set up a defensive line near the town of Kalak, about 25 miles northwest of Irbil, as Kurdish officials pleaded with the United States for direct military support.
Early Friday morning, a resident of Kalak told McClatchy that she had heard a jet aircraft overhead and had heard explosions from behind Islamic State lines. But the aircraft was Iraqi, not American, according to Kurdish and American officials.
The U.S. move to drop supplies to the Yazidis came at the request of the Iraqi government, Obama said. The Yazidis, who have been targeted for years by Muslim extremists who consider their religious beliefs heretical, were forced from their homes when the Islamic State captured the city of Sinjar. They fled to the nearby mountains with little more than the clothes on their back.
In recent days, human- rights advocates have pleaded for international help to reach the Yazidis, who were without drinking water and food. Dozens of people were reported to have died of thirst in the 115-degree Iraqi heat.
Obama said the U.S. military also had been authorized to strike at Islamic State forces if they move against the Yazidi refugees.
"Today America is coming to help," he declared.
The U.S. intervention was almost certain to ease tension in Irbil, which was on edge Thursday after the Islamic State announced in an Internet posting that it intended to capture the city.
Until this week, the Kurdish region had been considered so secure that the United States had chosen it as one of two Iraqi locations safe enough to transfer staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But a sense of dread fell over the Kurdish capital Thursday as the magnitude of the threat became clear.
Western oil companies based in Irbil shut down operations and restricted their employees' movements out of concerns for safety, while makeshift shelters popped up in public parks and churches in the Ain Kawa neighborhood to accommodate hundreds of people who had fled the newly occupied towns. There was a noticeable increase in the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga militia in the city, and there were reports that residents flooded the airport in hopes of buying tickets to elsewhere.
The peshmerga appeared to be preparing to make a last stand at Kalak. Several hundred regulars in uniforms with well-maintained light weapons and heavy machine guns, backed by a few armored vehicles and a single Soviet-era T-55 tank, were digging in along a string of desolate desert hills to prepare for what a top security official called a "very serious test."
"The Americans keep saying they will help us," said Rosg Nuri Shawess, a top Kurdish military commander who was overseeing the defensive preparations. "Well, if they plan to help they had better do it now."
The United States has a diplomatic consulate in Irbil as well as a military operations center that was set up there recently to advise and assist the Iraqi military in that region.
President Obama dispatched more than 800 U.S. forces to Iraq this year following the Islamic State's gains. More than half are providing security for the embassy in Baghdad and U.S. personnel.