Obama Authorizes Airstrikes as U.S. Drops Food to Iraqis

Aug 07, 2014 10:40 pm ET

(Updates with Obama comments, airlift beginning in fourth paragraph.)

Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said he authorized airstrikes against militants in Iraq if they threaten U.S. personnel, and he dispatched planes to drop food and water for trapped civilians threatened with “genocide.”

U.S. aircraft dropped supplies today to Iraqis threatened by fighters from the Islamic State extremist group near Sinjar, close to the border of Syria. All the planes safely left the airspace.

The airlift was precipitated by the plight of about 50,000 people, half of them children, who have been stranded in mountainous territory after advances by the militant Islamic State. The people are Yezidis, an ethno-religious minority. The militants have also targeted Christians, Obama said.

The extremists “have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidis people, which would constitute a genocide,” Obama said tonight in televised remarks from the White House. “The United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”

Obama, who campaigned for office on a vow to end the Iraq war, and oversaw the full withdrawal of forces from Iraq in 2011, said the U.S. has no intention of putting forces on the ground. He said he authorized airstrikes against Islamic State militants if they move toward the Kurdish city of Erbil, where the U.S. has diplomatic personnel.

Taking Action

“I have been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military,” he said. “But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action.”

The airstrike authorization also covers breaking the siege in the mountainous area if necessary, according to an administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. No strikes had occurred, according to administration officials who spoke to reporters by telephone soon after Obama’s statement.

After its breakthrough two months ago, when it routed the Iraqi army and seized the city of Mosul, the Islamic State, the radical Sunni group that threatens the government in Baghdad, returned to the offensive this week. They have been pushing back the Kurdish fighters that had been protecting the communities.

The U.S. began coordinating with Kurdish and Iraqi security forces as the extremists advanced, the official said.

Islamic State fighters extended their advance by seizing the Mosul dam, the country’s largest. It holds back water that, if unleashed, could flood Mosul, northern Iraq’s biggest city, and cause damage as far as Baghdad.

Market Reaction

Oil prices rose on the news about the dam, with Brent for September settlement climbing 85 cents, or 0.8 percent, to end the session at $105.44 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. Shortly after Obama spoke futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.5 percent by 11:15 in Tokyo and Treasury yields fell to the lowest in more than a year.

Islamic State, which was previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and declared its own self-styled caliphate, highlighting the central government’s inability to ensure security under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Obama has been pressing for Iraqis first to develop a more inclusive government that can unify Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations before the U.S. would intervene more forcefully.

“The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities,” Obama said.

The U.S. has bolstered its military presence in Iraq, sending 300 advisers to do assessments of the Iraqi military and the threat from militants. An additional 470 U.S. forces had been previously authorized to bolster security, especially at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The supplies were dropped from three transports, a C-17 jet and two C-130 airplanes, accompanied by two F/A 18 fighters, according to the Pentagon. The supplies, dropped in bundles, included 5,300 gallons of drinking water and 8,000 packaged meals known as MREs, or meals ready to eat, according to an administration statement.

--With assistance from Aziz Alwan in Baghdad, Ladane Nasseri in Dubai, Mariam Fam in Cairo and Terry Atlas and David Lerman in Washington.