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Obama sends U.S. planes to aid Iraqi refugees, threatens Islamic State with airstrikes

IRBIL, Iraq — The United States early Friday took direct action for the first time to counter the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq, dropping humanitarian supplies to tens of thousands of people who’d fled their homes when the extremist group captured the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq.

In a nationally televised address, President Barack Obama said he also had authorized targeted airstrikes "to protect American personnel" if forces from the Islamic State advance on the city of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, where the United States maintains a large consulate, a recently expanded CIA station and a military Joint Operations Command center.

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.

He said, however, that the United States could not stand by idly as thousands of Iraqis faced "certain death" and that the move was intended "to prevent a potential act of genocide."

"The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now," Obama said. "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 ... 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."

The Obama administration has been studying what options it might take to thwart the Islamic State since the radical group seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in early June, then swept across north and central Iraq in a campaign that saw the Iraqi army dissolve in disarray. Until Thursday, however, U.S. officials have offered no hint of what steps they might take to assist the Iraqi government, whose army has yet to be able to mount a successful counterattack to reverse the Islamic State’s gains.

A statement from the Pentagon distributed shortly after the president spoke said one C-17 aircraft and two C-130s had dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies to the thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority who had fled to mountains near the city of Sinjar after Islamist extremists seized the city. The supplies included 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water, the statement said, an especially needed commodity in Iraq’s 115-degree summer heat.

Two F/A-18 fighter jets accompanied the cargo planes, but no ground troops were involved, the Pentagon said. All of the aircraft had left the area of the drop by the time the president spoke, the statement said. There were not reports of hostile fire.

U.S. officials briefing reporters said the mission was completed shortly before the president spoke — 9:30 p.m. Thursday in Washington, but early Friday in Iraq. Planning for the airdrop began last Saturday, the officials said, after Islamic State forces launched what was described as a "swift and effective" attack on Sinjar and other locations in northern Iraq.

But the impetus for action built after Islamic State attacked towns near Irbil late Wednesday, the officials said. Obama spoke with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and then twice with his national security team before authorizing the action.

The announcement of the mission 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 and supplies.

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 reports and American officials.

The United States’ 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, had fled with little more than the clothes on their back. Reports from the city in the days since indicate that Yazidis who remained behind have been executed, tortured and raped.

Dozens of those who fled reportedly have died in the mountains.

Obama suggested that the U.S. commitment to protect the Yazidis was open ended, saying that he had also authorized the U.S. military to launch strikes against Islamic State forces if they move against the refugees — a pledge that could last weeks or even months since the area is isolated and the Islamic State controls the approaches.

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 Iraq. But a sense of dread fell over the Kurdish capital on Thursday as the magnitude of the Islamic State 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’d 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 hundreds of residents flooded the airport in hopes of buying tickets to elsewhere.

A refugee camp at Kalak that only two days ago was filled with tens of thousands of refugees who’d fled Mosul when it fell to the Islamic State was empty Thursday as the area became a new front line.

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 with earth movers 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."