IRBIL, Iraq — American warplanes and drones struck Islamist militants in northern Iraq on Friday, putting the U.S. military back in action in the skies over Iraq less than three years after the troops withdrew and President Obama declared the war over.
The airstrikes were limited in scope but helped temper rising concerns across the predominantly Kurdish region as militants with the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria pushed through towns and villages and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives.
The airstrikes also presented the first significant challenge to months of unchecked expansion by the al-Qaeda offshoot, which has swept through much of Iraq and into parts of neighboring Syria in the last year.
The ISIS militants have annihilated opponents, captured valuable resources, and declared the creation of an Islamic caliphate in a nation-sized chunk of territory.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced three separate strikes by multiple aircraft against militant positions it said were firing on Kurdish forces protecting Irbil, saying they had “successfully eliminated” artillery, a mortar position, and a convoy of extremist fighters.
U.S. officials emphasized that the American intervention is designed narrowly to protect American diplomats and officials living in Irbil, where a large U.S. consulate has been swelled by evacuees from the embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. military also runs a joint operations center in Irbil alongside Kurdish forces.
“There are American military and diplomatic personnel in Irbil,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “The protection of American personnel in Iraq is a top priority and one that merits the use of military force.”
He said the authorization for airstrikes “is very limited in scope,” but did not rule out that there may be additional strikes to protect some of the tens of thousands of members of the minority Yazidi faith trapped by ISIS fighters on Mount Sinjar.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested the U.S. intervention, Mr. Earnest said.
But U.S. officials made clear that more comprehensive U.S. engagement in the battle against the militants will not happen unless feuding politicians in Baghdad establish a more inclusive government capable of resolving Sunni grievances that facilitated the rapid expansion of ISIS.
The Iraqi parliament is set to choose a new prime minister, perhaps as early as Sunday, according to U.S. officials who have made clear their preference for Mr. Maliki to stand down.
The first airstrikes occurred in the early afternoon — at dawn Washington time — and were carried out by two F/A-18 combat jets flying from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. The aircraft dropped 500-pound, laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece that had been used to shell Kurdish positions, the Pentagon said.
The strike occurred in Makhmour, a town southwest of Irbil, according to Mahmood Haji, an official at the Kurdish Interior Ministry. Two more announced strikes occurred in late afternoon, Iraq time.
An MQ-1 Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles struck an ISIS mortar position. When fighters returned to the site moments later, “the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated,” according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
Less than an hour later, four aircraft dropped eight laser-guided bombs on a seven-vehicle convoy and a mortar position nearby, the Pentagon said. Those strikes took place near the Khazer checkpoint on the road between Mosul and Irbil, according to Mr. Haji.
As news of the airstrikes spread, jihadist fighters and supporters took to Twitter to express glee that the United States had entered the battle, threatening to shoot down planes, exact revenge, and conquer American allies elsewhere in the region.
Mr. Obama authorized the strikes in response to an ISIS offensive launched a week ago across northern Iraq, in which areas occupied mainly by members of Iraq’s ancient Christian minority, as well as the Yazidis, have been overrun.
At the same time, he dispatched U.S. military aircraft to drop food and water to the besieged Yazidis, who fled the town of Sinjar to a nearby mountain to escape the advancing militants.
Mr. Obama said airstrikes might be used to break the militant siege of the mountaintop if Kurdish forces are unable to do so.
After weeks of appealing to the United States for weapons and ammunition to help in the fight against militants, Kurdish officials expressed gratitude for the intervention.
Some Republicans criticized Mr. Obama for waiting too long as ISIS forces spread across Iraq over the last two months. Others warned Mr. Obama against expanding the effort without congressional approval.