WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday that he authorized "targeted airstrikes" if needed to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq, as well as airdrops of food and water to religious minorities in Iraq who are under siege from Islamic militants and trapped on a mountaintop.
"Today, America is coming to help," Obama said.
The president's announcement Thursday amounts to a significant escalation of involvement in the growing Iraqi crisis, but Obama attempted to assure the American public that it would not lead to U.S. involvement in a ground war there.
The administration has been weighing options for weeks, but the issue has come to a head with a mounting humanitarian crisis and unrelenting progress by Islamist extremists.
The most immediate crisis involved the Yazidis, a small religious minority, who have fled their homes and are trapped on a mountaintop surrounded by Islamist militants and are facing dehydration and starvation.
The U.S. military made an initial airdrop of meals and water to thousands of civilians threatened by militants on Thursday. The aircraft that made the drop safely exited the region after conducting a low-level flight and staying over the area for 15 minutes.
Three U.S. cargo aircraft delivered 72 bundles of supplies, including food and water, the Pentagon said. The aircraft were escorted by two FA-18 fighter attack jets.
The United States "cannot turn a blind eye" while innocent families face the prospect of "genocide," Obama said, justifying U.S. military action that could eventually include airstrikes.
Obama said U.S. aid would turn to airstrikes, which would represent a much deeper involvement in the conflict, in order to prevent militants from reaching Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. Irbil is home to a U.S. Consulate and a joint U.S.-Iraqi security base.
The airstrikes depend on whether U.S. personnel and facilities are directly threatened by the militants, Obama said.