Obama authorises Iraq air strikes on Islamist fighters
53 minutes ago
As Rajini Vaidyanathan reports, President Obama made a TV address to announce he had authorised strikes
US President Barack Obama says he has authorised air strikes against Islamic militants in northern Iraq but will not send US troops back to the country.
He said Islamic State (IS) fighters would be targeted to prevent the slaughter of religious minorities, or if they threaten US interests.
Strikes have not yet begun, but the US has made humanitarian air drops to Iraqis under threat from the militants.
IS has seized Qaraqosh, Iraq’s biggest Christian town, forcing locals to flee.
The Sunni Muslim group, formerly known as Isis, has been gaining ground in northern Iraq and Syria for several months.
In a rapid advance in June the group took control of the northern city of Mosul and advanced south towards Baghdad.
It now controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria and says it has created an Islamic caliphate in its territory.
‘Coming to help’
Speaking at the White House, Mr Obama said US military aircraft had already dropped food and water to members of the Yazidi religious minority community trapped on Mount Sinjar by IS fighters.
The Yazidis face starvation and dehydration if they remain on the mountain, and slaughter at the hands of the IS if they flee, officials have warned.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis are understood to have fled their homes, as James Robbins reports
Mr Obama said the US could not turn a “blind eye” to the prospect of violence “on a horrific scale”, especially when the Iraqi government had requested assistance.
He said the US would act “carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide”.
US air strikes would target IS fighters if they threaten Baghdad or move towards the Kurdish capital of Irbil, where there is a significant presence of US diplomats and military advisers, Mr Obama said.
In addition, he authorised strikes “if necessary” to help Iraqi government forces break the siege at Mount Sinjar and rescue the trapped civilians.
“The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces,” Mr Obama added.
Analysis: Tom Esslemont, BBC News, Washington
For a president still busy withdrawing his troops from Afghanistan, the situation in northern Iraq has proved decisive.
Doing nothing here was not an option and the US could not turn a blind eye to what Mr Obama called the systematic destruction of Christians and Yazidis.
He employed strong language to seek justification. It was, he said, to prevent acts of genocide.
It is a hugely symbolic and potent term for a president who a year ago decided against military intervention in Syria. And that was after a red line had been crossed and chemical weapons had been used.
This time, just across the border, the White House has a specific goal – the protection of US assets and embassy personnel in Iraq and to bring urgent relief to the civilians affected.
But to critics it is too limited an operation that will do little to diminish the power of the Islamic State jihadists.
UN: ‘Deeply appalled’
The president spoke hours after the UN Security Council met. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply appalled” by the situation.
As many as 100,000 Christians are believed to have fled their homes ahead of the IS advance, and most of them are thought to have gone toward the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have been fighting the IS militants’ advance in the area around Qaraqosh for weeks, but on Wednesday night it appeared they had abandoned their posts.
IS controls parts of Iraq and Syria and says it has created an Islamic state
Eyewitnesses in Qaraqosh said IS militants were taking down crosses in churches and burning religious manuscripts.
Iraqi Christian leaders spoke out, and Pope Francis made an impassioned appeal for international help.
Canon Andrew White: “The international community has got to wake up to the needs of the people. They have nothing”
Last month, hundreds of Christian families fled Mosul after rebels gave them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be executed.
Iraq is home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities, but numbers have dwindled amid growing sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003.
About 50,000 Yazidis are thought to have been trapped in the mountains after fleeing Sinjar over the weekend – although the UN says some of them have now been rescued.
Almost 200,000 civilians have been displaced from Sinjar town, according to the UN.
Those trapped on the mountain are facing dehydration, and 40 children are already reported to have died already.
Iraq’s Christian population has plummeted in recent years
The majority are Chaldeans, part of the Catholic Church
Numbers have fallen from around 1.5 million since the US-led invasion in 2003 to 350,000-450,000
In Nineveh, they live mainly in towns such as Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdida), Bartella, Al-Hamdaniya and Tel Kef
Secretive group whose origins and ethnicity are subject to continuing debate
Religion incorporates elements of many faiths, including Zoroastrianism
Many Muslims and other groups view Yazidis as devil worshippers
There are estimated to be around 500,000 Yazidis worldwide, most living in Iraq’s Nineveh plains
Iraq: The minorities of Nineveh
Who are the Yazidis?
Iraqi volunteers have joined government forces to fight against IS militants
IS is also thought to be behind a string of car bombs in Baghdad on Wednesday
Tens of thousands of people from the ancient Yazidi community have left their homes due to the IS offensive ——by @UC Browser