Sailors launch aircraft from the flight deck of the
aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) in the Gulf.
Photo from Reuters
U.S. warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on
Iraq's Kurdish capital 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.
A Pentagon spokesman said two F/A-18 aircraft from an
aircraft carrier in the Gulf had dropped laser-guided
500-pound bombs on a mobile artillery piece used by the
fighters to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil.
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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."
The U.S. Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of
supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of
gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near
Sinjar, home of the Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an
ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism.
The Islamic State considers them to be "devil worshippers".
After fighters ordered them to leave, convert or die, most
fled their towns and villages to camp out on Sinjar mountain,
an arid peak where they believe Noah settled after the
"After we fled to the mountain, I returned one day to recover
belongings and I saw the bodies of the elderly disabled men
who had been shot dead by the Islamic State. They were too
old to flee. I can't forget that scene," said Akram Edo, who
escaped to Kurdish-held territory with seven children.
His brother Hameed Edo, still back on the mountain with five
children, told Reuters by telephone water was running out and
no aid had arrived for the civilians trapped in the
Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi lawmaker in Baghdad, said: "We hear
through the media there is American help, but there is
nothing on the ground.... Please save us! SOS! save us!" he
said. "Our people are in the desert. They are exposed to a
TRAMPLE OUR DEAD BODIES
In the Kurdish capital, suddenly near the front line for the
first time after a decade of war, defiant residents said they
were stockpiling weapons and prepared to defend the city.
"People with children took them to their families (outside
Arbil), but the men have stayed," said Abu Blind, 44, working
at a tea stall in Arbil bazaar. "They will have to trample
over our dead bodies to reach Arbil."
The Kurdish region has until now been the only part of Iraq
to survive the past decade of civil war without a serious
security threat. Its vaunted "peshmerga" fighters - those who
confront death - also controlled wide stretches of territory
outside the autonomous zone, which served as sanctuary for
fleeing Christians and other minorities when Islamic State
fighters arrived in the region last month.
But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of an
advance by the fighters, who have heavy weapons they seized
from Iraqi army troops that abandoned their posts in June. In
addition, the fighters are flush with cash looted from banks.
Christians, many of them already refugees who had sought
shelter in peshmerga-controlled areas, were suddenly forced
to flee. Tens of thousands of Christians fled on Thursday
when the Islamic State overran their hometown, Qaraqosh.
Shamil Abu Madian, a 45-year-old Christian, told Reuters he
had first quit the city of Mosul when it fell in June. He
initially sheltered in a town protected by the peshmerga, but
was forced to flee again in panic in the middle of the night
when the Kurdish peshmerga troops suddenly vanished.
"We were not able to take anything with us except some
clothes in a nylon bag," he said. "People are living on
sidewalks, in public gardens, anywhere."
A United Nations humanitarian spokesman said some 200,000
people fleeing the Islamists' advance had reached the town of
Dohuk on the Tigris River in Iraqi Kurdistan and nearby areas
of Nineveh province. Tens of thousands had fled further north
to the Turkish border, Turkish officials said.
AYATOLLAH CITES "GRAVE MISTAKE"
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has
threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians
in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an
inconclusive election in April.
Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist whose foes accuse him of fuelling
the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state,
has refused to step aside for a less polarising figure,
defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old
scholar whose word is law for millions of Shi'ites in Iraq
and beyond, has repeatedly pushed for politicians to break
the deadlock and reunify the country. His weekly sermon on
Friday, read out by an aide, was his clearest call for Maliki
Though he did not mention Maliki by name, he said those who
cling to posts were making a "grave mistake".
Reuters photographs on Thursday showed the insurgents had
raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45 km (28
miles) from Arbil. U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron
began evacuating expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan on
Thursday. Smaller oil companies also evacuated staff and cut
back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on
Thursday and Friday.
The Islamists' lightning offensive and the threat of U.S.
military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world
financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets
such as gold and German government bonds.
Obama, who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq to fulfill a
campaign pledge, insisted he would not commit ground forces
and had no intention of letting the United States "get
dragged into fighting another war in Iraq".
Questions were quickly raised in Washington about whether
selective U.S. attacks on militant positions and humanitarian
air drops would be enough to shift the balance on the
battlefield against the Islamist forces.
"I completely support humanitarian aid as well as the use of
air power," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after
Obama's announcement. "However the actions announced tonight
will not turn the tide of battle."