WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama approved airdrops of humanitarian supplies to thousands of religious minorities in Iraq who are under siege from Islamic militants, but he was still weighing whether to combine that assistance with U.S. airstrikes, officials said Thursday night.
Airstrikes on towns in northern Iraq seized by Islamist militants began late Thursday in what Kurdish and Iraqi officials called the first stage of a U.S.-led intervention to blunt the militants’ advance and provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of refugees.
The Pentagon firmly denied that U.S. forces had begun a bombing campaign. But Pentagon officials said it was possible that allies of the United States, either the Iraqi or Turkish militaries, had conducted the bombing.
Airstrikes were under consideration in part out of concern that U.S. military trainers stationed in Iraq’s north were threatened by the Islamic State group, the officials said. The Islamic State fighters have 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.
Obama met with his national security team throughout Thursday to discuss the crisis as the Islamic State group made further gains. Airstrikes in particular would mark a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Officials said Obama could announce a decision as early as Thursday night. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
In New York, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations said there was “some communication between Baghdad and Washington” on the issue of airstrikes. But none were underway, said the ambassador, Mohamed Alhakim, following emergency consultations on Iraq with the U.N. Security Council.
The humanitarian supplies would go to assist 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. “We are gravely concerned for their health and safety.”
In recent days, the Islamic State militants have also swept through villages in the north that are home to thousands of Iraqi Christians. Furthering their gains, the extremists seized Iraq’s largest dam Thursday, gaining control of enormous power and water resources and access to the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
It was unclear when the humanitarian assistance would reach the Iraqis. U.S. officials were tight-lipped about the operation in part out of concern for the safety of those involved in the mission.
Obama used the threat of an imminent humanitarian crisis as a rationale for limited U.S. military action in Libya in 2010, as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi threatened a massacre in Benghazi. The U.S. and NATO partners launched a bombing campaign over Libya, with Obama moving forward without congressional approval.
If the president were to approve airstrikes in Iraq, it’s all but certain that he would proceed without formal congressional approval. Lawmakers left town last week for a five-week recess, and there was no sign Thursday that Congress was being called back.
Some Republicans have expressly called for the president to take action and have said he doesn’t need the approval of lawmakers.
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 Iraqi government has sought military assistance from the U.S., but Obama has resisted. He has cast any military action as contingent on Iraq reforming its political system to be more inclusive, a step the U.S. hopes would lessen the country’s sectarian tension.
Obama has warned that even if the U.S. were to re-engage militarily in Iraq, it would be in a limited fashion and would not involve putting combat troops on the ground. His spokesman reiterated those assurances again on Thursday.
“There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq,” Earnest said.
Obama did dispatch more than 800 U.S. forces to Iraq this year following the Islamic State’s gains. 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.