IRBIL, IRAQ — The United States on Thursday 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 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. 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.
But he also said 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."
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 no reports of hostile fire.
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 commitment 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 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 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 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 had 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."
From Kalak, about 25 miles northwest of Irbil, the front line of the Islamic State, which everyone here refers to as "Daash," an Arabic acronym, could be seen slightly more than a mile away.
"Daash is testing our defenses," said Shawess, who is a member of the Iraqi government's national security council, pointing to two towns that fell Thursday to the Islamic State, Qaraqosh and Bartella, that were visible in the distance. "And if we don't show them we are strong here, then we have lost Irbil."
Shawess said his men were confident and well trained, a claim reinforced by the professional demeanor of his uniformed men. But the peshmerga will face Islamic State fighters armed with advanced U.S. weapons with just a handful of 12.7mm Soviet-era heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"We need better weapons and help," Shawess said. "They tried to attack this morning but were just testing us."
Shawess said those attacks recalled the first Islamic State moves in Mosul before that city fell to the Islamists June 9.
"These tests are critical," added Shawess. "When they first attacked Mosul I don't know if they planned to take it, but when there was no resistance they acted quickly. We have to show them here they can't take Irbil."
He was hardly exaggerating. The 25 miles from this new front line to the outskirts of Irbil — barely a 30-minute drive — remained virtually undefended beyond the occasional cluster of peshmerga fighters on hilltops and another single T-55 tank sitting in an intersection about halfway down the road.
The Kurds have a long, proud history of military prowess, and civilians and retired peshmerga were turning out in force to support their uniformed compatriots. But while they were enthusiastic in their traditional Kurdish clothing, they seemed far more interested in recounting the history of previous victories than in preparing for a soon-to-come onslaught. Their weapons were a motley assortment of family firearms, some modern, many antique. Some men, old and portly or young and untrained, manned a series of checkpoints closer to the capital, with an eye for Arabs driving cars with Mosul plates. Some merely stood around.
"I have come to defend my country," said Yassin, 60, who wore traditional tribal clothes and carried a Russian-made Dragonov sniper rifle, missing its scope, rendering it basically useless except for close-quarter fighting. "All Kurds know how to fight."
But despite the positive attitude, word from the various fronts around Kurdistan was grim.
The Mosul Dam had fallen to the Islamic State, U.S. and Kurdish officials confirmed. It is the largest such structure in Iraq and controls a major Iraqi watershed, amid fears that the Islamic State could unleash a torrent of water and inundate hundreds of square miles of Iraq.
The link between Irbil and the Iraqi city of Kirkuk to the south, which fell under Kurdish control when Iraqi soldiers fled in June, also appeared in danger, with reports that the Islamic State had taken at least partial control of Makhmour, a town that lies along the primary highway between the two cities.
Falah Bakir, the foreign minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government, said in an interview with CNN that the Kurds faced disaster and needed immediate assistance. "We are left alone in the front to fight the terrorists of ISIS," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, which used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"I believe the United States has a moral responsibility to support us, because this is a fight against terrorism, and we have proven to be pro-democracy, pro-West and pro-secularism," Bakir said.
"I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants," Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told the Agence France Presse news agency. The fall of those villages represented the loss of the largest Christian communities in Iraq.
Kurdish officials repeatedly have claimed that the United States and the Iraqi government in Baghdad have refused to send military aid and that they have only Saddam Hussein-era weapons and limited ammunition to counter Islamic State forces that are armed with advanced American weaponry.
A statement attributed to the Islamic State posted Thursday on the Internet said that the Islamists would target Irbil as retaliation for Kurdish officials' agreement earlier this week to coordinate operations against the Islamic State with the central government in Baghdad.
"We are pleased to announce to the Islamic nation a new liberation in Nineveh province, teaching the secular Kurds a lesson," the statement said.
The United States has long been seen as the Kurdish region's protector. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone over the region to prevent Saddam's air force from attacking. The Kurdish zone became a rare outpost of economic development in an era when harsh trade restrictions were imposed on the rest of Iraq. After U.S. forces toppled Saddam in 2003, the region enjoyed enormous autonomy and was largely free of the sectarian warfare and chaos that plagued the rest of Iraq during the American occupation.