U.S. Warplanes Strike Militants in Iraq
DOHUK, Iraq — The United States on Friday afternoon launched a second round of airstrikes on Sunni militants in northern Iraq, sending four Navy fighter jets to strike eight targets around Erbil, according to Pentagon officials.
The attacks came hours after an initial wave of strikes by military aircraft and armed drones, escalating the American involvement in Iraq a day after President Obama announced that the United States military was returning to a direct combat role in the country it left in 2011.
Military officials said they believed that the second round of attacks resulted in a number of casualties among the militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Navy fighters launched from the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, which has been deployed in the Arabian Sea.
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“We do believe there were some casualties,” the official said about the initial strikes, although he would not say how many. He added, “They were shelling Erbil; they’re not firing anymore. I’ll tell you that.”
Mr. Obama said Thursday that he had authorized airstrikes if necessary to break an ISIS siege that has left tens of thousands of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. But so far, all of the military bombings have been carried out at targets near the Kurdish capital, where the United States has a consulate and where thousands of Americans live.
Military officials said that they expected the strikes to continue as warranted, as part of an effort to slow the momentum of ISIS militants, who had accelerated their march on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.
Kurdish officials said the first round of American bombs struck on Friday afternoon in and around Makhmour, a town near Erbil. They reported an airstrike in the same location on Thursday, before the president’s announcement; the Pentagon denied that American warplanes carried out that earlier attack.
Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, have been pressed hard in recent days by the militant fighters, who have seized several towns near Erbil from the Kurds and took the Mosul Dam, one of the most important installations in the country. The airstrike appeared intended to help stem the tide.
“The airstrikes are being led by the U.S.A., and pesh merga are attacking with Katyusha,” said Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, referring to a type of Russian-made tactical rocket
Many members of religious minorities in northern Iraq, including Christians, have fled to Kurdish territory to escape the advancing militants, who have imposed harsh fundamentalist rule in areas they control. Others have been trapped and besieged by the militants, including tens of thousands of Yezidis, who follow an ancient faith linked to Zoroastrianism and are stranded in a mountainous area to the west. Delivering humanitarian aid to that group is one of the purposes of the American operations in Iraq, Mr. Obama said.
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Britain, a close ally and coalition partner of the United States in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Friday that it would not take part in military action there now but would provide humanitarian aid and technical assistance.
“What we have decided today is to assist the United States in the humanitarian operations that started yesterday,” the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said in London on Friday. “We are offering technical assistance in that, in terms of refueling and surveillance. We are offering aid of our own, which we hope to drop over the next couple of days in support of the American relief effort, particularly to help the plight of those who are trapped on the mountain.”
Turkey, a NATO ally that borders northern Iraq, said on Friday that it, too, would step up humanitarian aid to the region, news agencies reported.
The Federal Aviation Administration, citing “the hazardous situation created by armed conflict,” instructed American air carriers on Thursday not to fly in Iraqi airspace until further notice. Turkish Airlines said it had suspended service to and from Erbil indefinitely; The Associated Press reported that Lufthansa had done the same and that British Airways would suspend flights over Iraq.
The leader of the militant group sent a defiant message to the Americans in an audio statement posted on YouTube in June, and re-circulated on Twitter Friday. .
“This is the message of the leader of the faithful,,” wrote the leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a message addressed to “America, the defender of the cross.”
“You should know, you defender of the cross, that getting others to fight on your behalf will not do for you in Syria as it will not do for you in Iraq. And soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation - forced to do so - God willing. And the sons of Islam have prepared themselves for this day. So wait and we will be waiting too.”
While Kurds welcomed Mr. Obama’s announcement of American assistance, the reaction in Baghdad was mixed.
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About two weeks ago, I heard an interview by a Human Rights Watch official on how religious and ethnic minorities are fleeing into Kurdish...
“Obama’s speech did not delight Iraqis,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a leader of a main Shiite bloc in Parliament, the Sadr faction, who were among the strongest opponents of American involvement in Iraq. “They are looking out for their own interests, not for ours,” he said.
“They should have provided Iraq with weapons,” he added, possibly an allusion to the American suspension of deliveries of F-16 fighter jets and combat aircraft to Iraq.
Another Shiite leader, Sami al-Askeri, who is close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said Mr. Obama’s call for airstrikes had come “too late.”
“They should have made this decision when hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis were being killed every day,” he said.
Mr. Askeri accused the Obama administration of being interested only in “protecting the Kurdish regional government and Christians, not the rest of Iraq.”
“Iraqis must rely on themselves and their genuine friends like Iran and Russia, who have supported Iraq in its battle against ISIS,” he said. Russia has sent Sukhoi helicopters to the Iraqi forces, and Iran has trained and financed militia forces and sent advisers.
The decision to announce American air operations on Thursday appeared to reflect a view among Kurdish, Iraqi and American military leaders that a crippling attack by the militants was more imminent than was widely recognized. The militants’ seizure of two towns within 20 miles of Erbil, which serves as the Kurdish capital, precipitated panic in the capital and the beginnings of an exodus of residents to Sulaimaniya, the largest city to the north.
Military leaders believed that if the city emptied, it would be much more vulnerable to an militant attack, officials said privately, asking not to be quoted because they did not want to shake morale.
The bombing appeared to bolster morale in Erbil on Friday, at least temporarily, according to people there. Fewer cars could be seen at the city gates attempting to leave, they said.
“The bombing changed the mood of the people,” said a pesh merga officer.
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