U.S. warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on Iraq’s Kurdish capital on Friday after President Barack Obama said Washington must act to prevent “genocide”.
Islamic State fighters, who have beheaded and crucified captives in their drive to eradicate unbelievers, have advanced to within a half hour’s drive of Arbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region and a hub for U.S. oil companies.
They have also seized control of Iraq’s biggest dam, Kurdish authorities confirmed on Friday, which could allow them to flood cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies.
The Pentagon said two F/A-18 aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf had dropped laser-guided 500-pound bombs on the fighters’ artillery and other airstrikes had targeted motar positions and an Islamic State convoy.
Obama authorised the first U.S. air strikes on Iraq since he pulled all troops out in 2011, arguing action was needed to halt the Islamist advance, protect Americans and safeguard hundreds of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who have fled for their lives.
The United States also dropped relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect, tens of thousands of whom are massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help’,” said Obama in a late night television address to the nation on Thursday. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said. On Friday the White House said the strikes would last as long as the security situation required.
The Islamic State was defiant. A fighter told Reuters by telephone the U.S. air strikes would have “no impact on us”.
“The planes attack positions they think are strategic, but this is not how we operate. We are trained for guerrilla street war,” he said. “God is with us and our promise is heaven. When we are promised heaven, do you think death will stop us?”
The advance of the Sunni militants, who also control a third of Syria and have fought this past week in Lebanon, has sounded alarm across the Middle East and threatens to unravel Iraq, a country divided between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The U.S. airstrikes prompted renewed calls on jihadi online forums for attacks on the United States and oil interests in the Gulf. “The mujahideen must strive … to discipline America and its criminal soldiers,” the SITE monitoring service quoted one such message, on the Shumukh al-Islam jihadi forum, as saying.
In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralysed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi’ite cleric all but demanded Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.
SHELTERING ON MOUNTAIN
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot rejected as too extreme by Osama bin Laden’s successors, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
Attention has focused on the plight of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq, which has been one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.
“The stakes for Iraq’s future can also not be clearer,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday. The Islamic State’s “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.”