WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Thursday he had authorized US air strikes on Iraq and humanitarian supply drops to prevent a "genocide" by Islamist extremists against minorities.
"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide," Obama said, referring to the attacks against the besieged Yazidi minority, thousands of whom are trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq.
"I therefore authorized targeted air strikes if necessary to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege and protect the civilians trapped there," Obama said.
The president said US warplanes could also target Islamic State militants if they advance on the city of Arbil, where the US has a diplomatic presence and advisors to Iraqi forces.
"We plan to stand vigilant and take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the consulate in Arbil and embassy in Baghdad," he said.
Iraqis from the Yazidi minority demonstrate outside the UN offices in the Iraqi city of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, on August 4, 2014. PHOTO/AFP
Obama, who did not say whether any air strikes have been carried out yet, said US forces have already started to drop food and water to Iraqis racing to flee the so-called Islamic State fighters.
"Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, there is no one coming to help. Well, today America is coming to help," Obama said.
The Pentagon said a US C-17 and two C-130 aircraft escorted by two F/A-18s had dropped thousands of gallons of drinking water and 8,000 packaged meals to the thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.
The planes stayed over the drop area, at a low altitude, for just 15 minutes, the Pentagon said.
Obama said in a situation like on Mount Sinjar -- where innocent people face possible "violence on a horrific scale," and where Iraq's government has asked for help -- "then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye."
Obama, who rose to political prominence as an outspoken critic of his predecessor George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, said he was not sending back ground forces.
"As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.
"And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," he said.