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Updated Aug 8, 2014 - 3:37 am

Obama authorizes renewed airstrikes in Iraq

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes in northern
Iraq Thursday night, warning they would be launched if needed to defend
Americans from advancing Islamic militants and protect civilians under siege.
His announcement threated a renewal of U.S. military involvement in the
country’s long sectarian war.

In a televised late-night statement from the White House, Obama said American
military planes already had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to tens of
thousands of Iraqi religious minorities surrounded by militants and desperately
in need of food and water.

“Today America is coming to help,” he declared.

The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S.
troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war. Obama, who made his
remarks in a steady and somber tone, has staked much of his legacy as president
on ending what he has called the “dumb war” in Iraq.

Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi
government. The food and water supplies were delivered to the tens of thousands
of Yazidis trapped on a mountain without food and water. The Yazidis, who follow
an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after the
Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious
fine, flee their homes or face death.

Mindful of the public’s aversion to another lengthy war, Obama acknowledged
that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for
concern among many Americans. He vowed anew not to put American combat troops
back on the ground in Iraq and said there was no U.S. military solution to the
crisis.

“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be drawn into
fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said.

Even so, he outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants
advance on American troops in the northern city of Irbil and the U.S. consulate
there. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House
response to the extremist group’s swift movement across the border with Syria
and into Iraq.

“When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” Obama
said. “That’s my responsibility as commander in chief.”

He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if
necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.

Obama spoke following a day of urgent discussions with his national security
team. He addressed the nation only after the American military aircraft
delivering food and water to the Iraqis had safely left the drop site in
northern Iraq.

The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo
aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They
were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters from an undisclosed air base in the region.

The planes delivered 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000
pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at a low
altitude.

The president cast the mission to assist the Yazidis as part of the American
mandate to assist around the world when the U.S. has the unique capabilities to
help avert a massacre.

In those cases, Obama said, “we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a
potential act of genocide.”

Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.

Administration officials said they believe unilateral U.S. strikes would be consistent with international law in part because the Iraqi government has asked for Washington to take military action. They also said Obama had the constitutional authority to act on his own in order to protect American citizens.

Still, there was no guarantee that the president’s threat of military strikes would actually be followed by action. He similarly authorized strikes in Syria last summer after chemical weapons were deployed, but those attacks were never carried out, in part because of domestic political concerns and also because an international agreement to strip Syria of its stockpiles of the deadly gases.

The president has also faced persistent calls to take military action in Syria on humanitarian grounds, given that more than 170,000 people have been killed there.

Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have argued that Obama’s cautious approach to Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to flourish there, growing strong enough to move across the border with Iraq and make swift gains.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Obama’s proposed actions Thursday night but said much more will be necessary.

“This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners” who are fighting the militants, airstrikes against the militants’ leaders and forces and support for Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist the extremists, they said in a statement.

In light of the militants’ advances, Obama dispatched about 800 U.S. forces to Iraq earlier this year, with those troops largely split between joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil.

More than half are providing security for the embassy and U.S. personnel. American service members also are involved in improving U.S. intelligence, providing security cooperation and conducting assessments of Iraqi capabilities.

Officials said there were no plans to evacuate those Americans from Iraq but that the U.S. was conducting enhanced intelligence flights over Irbil with both manned and unmanned aircrafts in order to monitor the deteriorating conditions.

If the president were to order actual airstrikes in Iraq, it’s all but certain he would proceed without formal congressional approval. Lawmakers left town last week for a five-week recess, and there was no sign that Congress was being called back.

However, officials said the White House was in contact throughout Thursday with some lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Some Republicans have expressly called for the president to take action and have said he doesn’t need the approval of lawmakers.

___

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Darlene Superville contributed to
this report.

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