U.S. Warplanes Target Militants In Iraq; Refugees Crowd Into Irbil

U.S. Warplanes Target Militants In Iraq; Refugees Crowd Into Irbil

By Kathleen Hennessey, David S. Cloud and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

IRBIL, Iraq — Two U.S. fighter jets bombed Sunni militant forces in northern Iraq on Friday morning, launching the first major U.S. military action in the country since combat troops left three years ago.

In a statement issued Friday morning, the Pentagon said two F/A-18 Hornets dropped laser-guided bombs on artillery that had fired on Kurdish forces near Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Militants of the Islamic State have been advancing toward the city, where thousands of Iraqis have sought sanctuary from the breakaway al-Qaida group.

The fighter jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a “mobile artillery piece,” being used by the militants, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.

The attack occurred only hours after President Barack Obama announced he had authorized airstrikes to protect about 100 U.S. military advisers in Irbil and to halt the advance of the Islamist militants.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest would not provide a time frame for the bombing campaign, but he offered a “specific presidential commitment” that it would not be an extended period.

“The president is determined to make sure that the United States is not dragged back into a long military conflict in Iraq,” Earnest told reporters.

In addition to protecting U.S. personnel and assisting Iraqi religious refugees stranded on a mountaintop in northern Iraq, Earnest added a third justification for Obama’s decision to authorize limited airstrikes. The White House has been encouraged by Baghdad’s steps toward a more inclusive government, Earnest said, and believes that the U.S. attack on the Sunni insurgents supports that progress.

“It is, after all, in the clear national security interests of the United States for there to be a stable Iraqi government that can preside over a stable Iraq and a security force that has the necessary capability to address the security situation in that country,” Earnest said.

Kirby said the Islamic State “was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil, where U.S. personnel are located.”

“As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities,” Kirby said, referring to the militant group by an acronym for another of its names, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

He did not say if the artillery had been destroyed and said it wasn’t clear if militants had been killed in the strike.

The Islamic State is a radical Sunni armed force that has seized control of large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq. Its forces took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, earlier this summer and have advanced in recent days toward the autonomous region controlled by the Kurds in the mountainous area northwest of Mosul.

Obama announced late Thursday that he had authorized airstrikes to defend U.S. personnel in Irbil. He also authorized strikes and humanitarian aid drops to assist thousands of displaced Iraqis in the area of Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

The refugees, mostly members of the Yazidi religious minority, have fled the advancing Islamic State fighters. Many face the risk of imminent starvation on the barren mountain slopes, Obama said.

Speaking in New Delhi, before the bombing had begun, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said intelligence and ground reports indicated that 60 of the 72 crates of food and water that U.S. military planes airdropped onto Mount Sinjar early Friday morning had reached Iraqi refugees trapped there.

Hagel said so far, the Iraqis have not requested additional humanitarian aid.

“If they feel we can do more, and they want us to do more, then we’ll consider all those requests,” he said.

AFP Photo/Ali Al-Bayati

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