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Iraqis and the international community welcomed the U.S. airlift of emergency aid to thousands of people who fled to the mountains to escape Islamic extremists and called for greater intervention, as U.S. warplanes struck the militants for the first time.
Cargo planes dropped parachuted crates of food and water over an area in the mountains outside Sinjar, where thousands of members of the Yazidi minority where sheltering, according to witnesses in the militant-held town, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
The airstrikes were meanwhile launched outside the Kurdish regional capital Irbil, and marked the first time U.S. forces have directly targeted the extremist Islamic State group, which controls large areas of Syria and Iraq.
In Irbil, about 3,000 Christians who fled their homes in Qaraqoush huddled inside St. Joseph’s cathedral. They said they were happy about the possibility of American airstrikes.
"We are pleased with the airstrikes and we hope we can go back to our properties," said one of the Qaraqoush refugees, 43-year-old Luay Janan.
In contrast to Washington’s decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against the Islamic State group were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants’ lightning advance across the country.
"We thank Barack Obama," said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the religious affairs ministry in the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and the Displaced also welcomed the aid drops. The ministry’s spokesman, Satar Nawrouz, said the drops came "just in time."
And yet, there is some sense that the American action came late in the game.
Speaking of the slow response to what he called “a genocide against Christians," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), stated yesterday, "President Obama has failed to lead.”
Smith, chairman of the global human right subcommittee in the House, said in a statement provided to Aleteia: “The evidence of genocide is overwhelming. The question is will we act before it’s too late? Will we act before every Christian in Iraq is exterminated or turned into a refugee? The President’s indifference is both numbing and enabling. We must act.”
And, in a statement today, Rep. Frank Wolf, a long-time advocate of protecting religious freedom, welcomed the US actions as "a positive first step" but said they should be followed with a "robust effort by the administration to provide assistance to the Kurdish government—including allowing them to sell their oil in order to have the resources to defend their territory and defend the Christians and other religious minorities who have sought their protection."
"It took the fall of Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Sinjar to the Islamists for the great powers to finally become concerned about the fate of minorities in Iraq," wrote Judikael Hirel in Aleteia’s French edition yesterday.
Wolf, a Virginia Republican who is retiring from Congress this year, pointed out that President Obama still has not signed legislation, passed by Congress two weeks ago, to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East.
"I’m glad to see that President Obama feels some sense of responsibility to protect Americans as well as the Iraqis who are the victims of ISIS," said Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Rome office of the Acton Institute, in an email exchange with Aleteia. "In the rush to pull American troops out of Iraq three years ago, we knew that such problems were likely to happen and would eventually require our return, if that’s what we want to call it."
Jayabalan felt it was "a bit strange that the Yazidis, rather than the Christians, seem to be the focus of Obama’s humanitarian efforts." While the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, are one target of ISIS’s wrath, the militant Islamist group has been pushing Christians out of their homes since they overran Mosul in early June, destroying Christian churches or turning them into mosques.
"I think this has something to do the exotic nature of the Yazidi religion, identifying with what the multiculturalists like to call the ‘Other,’ and not wanting to been seen as defending Christianity as a Western interest," Jayabalan mused, reflecting on Obama’s televised speech last night in which he announced the humanitarian mission. "It’s also notable he didn’t name the root of the problem, which is radical Islam. It’s clearly a religious conflict even if Obama isn’t able to call it one."
Obama outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants advance on American troops in Irbil and the U.S. consulate there in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House response to the extremist group’s swift movement across the border with Syria and into Iraq.
"When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "That’s my responsibility as commander-in- chief."
He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.
"At the request of the Iraqi government," Obama said, "we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on [Sinjar] mountain. As ISIL has marched across Iraq, it has waged a ruthless campaign against innocent Iraqis. And these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, a small and ancient religious sect. Countless Iraqis have been displaced. And chilling reports describe ISIL militants rounding up families, conducting mass executions, and enslaving Yezidi women."
He said ISIL forces "have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide. In such a case, Obama said, "we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide."
The extremist group’s capture of a string of towns and villages in the north has sent minority communities fleeing for their lives. The Islamic state views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax. Those refusing would face execution.
Moving into the city of Sinjar last Sunday, ISIS militants issued an ultimatum to the Yazidis, telling them they must convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, flee or face death. About 50,000 Yazidis — half of them children (pictured), according to U.N. figures — fled to the nearby mountains, where they were running out of food and water.
Obama said his administration was also consulting with the United Nations and other countries who have called for action to address this humanitarian crisis.
As reported yesterday by Aleteia’s French edition, France assured its support for Kurdish troops that have been fighting ISIS. After France requested a meeting of the UN Security Council on August 7, French President François Hollande spoke by phone with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
"They expressed their willingness to cooperate to block the offensive by the Islamic State in northeastern Iraq. The terrorist group’s persecution of religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, is a crime of the utmost gravity," said the Elysee in a statement. "The abominable abuses by the Islamic State since taking Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city, is the latest manifestation of its destructive madness. They add to the distress of a vulnerable minority that has a compelling need of the assistance and commitment of all."
Hollande confirmed to Barzani that France intended, as part of the emergency Security Council meeting of the United Nations, to mobilize the international community against terrorism in Iraq. He also emphasized France’s readiness to provide support to the forces engaged in this fight.
Hollande also spoke by telephone with the King of Jordan on the Syrian crisis, about the conflict in Gaza, the situation in Lebanon, and the need to provide Iraq’s endangered populations, especially the Christians, with all the support necessary for their protection.
While Obama continued to insist that he would not put "boots on the ground" in Iraq, but would use airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State if necessary, the use of human shields can sometimes make that impossible.
Traveling in India, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that if Islamic militants threaten U.S. interests in Iraq or the thousands of refugees who fled to a mountaintop, the U.S. military has enough intelligence to clearly single out the attackers and launch effective airstrikes.
The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters from an undisclosed air base in the region. The planes delivered 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at a low altitude.
Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary, though they did not say how quickly those missions could occur.
After seizing Iraq’s second largest city Mosul in June, the Islamic State group advanced across the north, pushing back Kurdish forces and coming within 40 miles of Irbil.
On Friday the Pentagon said U.S. fighter jets had dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and a truck towing it after it fired near U.S. personnel outside the city.
An Iraqi military handout video posted online showed Iraqi troops in helicopters delivering aid to the area. The footage corresponds to AP reporting of events.
The rush of people expelled from their homes or fleeing violence has exacerbated Iraq’s already-dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
Though Obama put out a fire on the mountain, what long-term solutions are there? A representative of Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for a more comprehensive international intervention to support the Iraqi government.
"The condemnation and consolation statements in support of the affected people, or sending some humanitarian aid, is not enough. Rather, solid plans, in cooperation with the Iraqi government, should be put in place to confront and eliminate the terrorists," said al-Sistani’s spokesman Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Karbala.
Washington has been more hesitant to intervene on behalf of the central government in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been widely blamed for the crisis, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that excluded Sunnis and Kurds.
The president has also faced persistent calls to take military action in Syria on humanitarian grounds, given that more than 170,000 people have been killed there.
Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have argued that Obama’s cautious approach to Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to flourish there, growing strong enough to move across the border with Iraq and make swift gains.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Obama’s proposed actions Thursday night but said much more will be necessary.
"This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian partners" who are fighting the militants, airstrikes against the militants’ leaders and forces and support for Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist the extremists," they said in a statement.
"The first thing would be to help these minority groups defend themselves against ISIS," said Acton’s Jayabalan, who previously served at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues. "But it is baffling to me that the Christians seem to be without any militias, which of course makes it harder for them to defend themselves. If they don’t have the will or the means to stay and fight, there’s not much that can be done for them in the long term, unfortunately. As Obama mentioned, we can provide military and humanitarian assistance, though I’m not sure how much the latter will do to solve the problem of violent persecution."
Jayabalan added that offering asylum to those who want to leave "seems to be a decent thing to do. It would be a terrible injustice if our overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent pullout of Iraq emboldened the Islamists and we then do nothing to help those who are left behind."
In light of the militants’ advances, Obama dispatched about 800 U.S. forces to Iraq earlier this year, with those troops largely split between joint operation centers in Baghdad and Irbil. 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.
In the end, perhaps, America needs to do a better job embracing the long view. "Radical groups like ISIS need to be nipped in the bud before they become bigger problems," Jayabalan said, "but that requires sustained strategic attention to faraway places, something that neither the Obama administration nor the American people seem to have much of a stomach for these days."
Frank Wolf, in his statement today, pointed to another long-term concern. "We must also be mindful of the threat to our national security by the thousand or more foreign fighters—including more than a hundred Americans—who have linked up with ISIS, and can travel back and forth to their home countries with ease," he said. "The administration must do everything possible to protect the American people from these threats, including seeking any legislative changes to prevent radicalized westerners from threatening the homeland. We have already seen one example of a radicalized American suicide bomber who was able to travel from the region to Florida and back with ease, before completing his suicide attack that killed civilians in Syria."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.