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WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Barack Obama announced Thursday night he had authorized the U.S. military to launch targeted airstrikes if needed to protect Americans from Islamic militants in northern Iraq, threatening to revive U.S. military involvement in the country's long sectarian war.
The president also said the U.S. military has carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to Iraqi religious minorities under siege by fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- or ISIS. He cited disturbing reports of extremist fighters rounding up families and executing them.
"Today America is coming to help," he said in a late-night statement from the White House.
The president said a key goal is to prevent ISIS fighters from seizing control of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where the United States has a consulate and military personnel advising Iraqi forces. The president said he's ordered U.S. warplanes to make targeted airstrikes to halt the advance of ISIS fighters on Erbil.
"We intend to stay vigilant and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq," Obama said. "We're also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL," he added, using an abbreviation for the terrorist group's other name, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government. The food and water supplies were delivered to the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar without food or water. The Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after the Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death.
"Chilling reports describe ISIL militants rounding up families, conducting mass executions and enslaving Yazidi women," Obama said.
The Washington Post has reported that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar after being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar.
Obama said U.S. airdrops aim to save "thousands of Iraqis who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death."
"Meanwhile ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," the president said. "So these innocent families are faced with a terrible choice -- descend the mountain and be slaughtered or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
U.S. military planes will support Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting to break the extremist group's siege of civilians on the mountain top.
The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Obama, who has staked much of his legacy as president on ending the Iraq war, acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for concern among many Americans. He vowed anew not to put American combat troops back on the ground in Iraq and said there was no U.S. military solution to the crisis.
"As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be drawn into fighting another war in Iraq," Obama said.