President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House on Thursday night. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
Washington— President Barack Obama announced Thursday night he had authorized the U.S. military to launch targeted airstrikes if needed to protect Americans from Islamic militants in northern Iraq, threatening to revive U.S. military involvement in the country’s long sectarian war.
He also said the U.S. military had carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to Iraqi religious minorities under siege by the extremists.
“Today America is coming to help,” he said in a late-night statement from the White House.
The announcements marked the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
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.
“The situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier. “We are gravely concerned for their health and safety.”
Obama, who has staked much of his legacy as president on ending the Iraq war, 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 New York Times reported Thursday that Kurdish and Iraqi officials said that the U.S. also had bombed two towns seized by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but the Pentagon denied U.S. forces were involved.
Iraq has been under siege for months by the al-Qaida-breakaway group seeking to create an Islamic state in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi government forces, Kurds and allied tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the militants and their Sunni allies with little apparent success
The militants made further gains Thursday, seizing Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, giving them control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
In recent days, they have also swept through villages in the north that are home to thousands of Iraqi Christians and made gains toward the Kurdish capital city of Irbil. The U.S. has a diplomatic consulate in Irbil as well as a military operations center that was set up recently to advise and assist the Iraqi military in that region.
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.