Obama Authorizes Targeted Strikes In Iraq

U.S. military aircraft dropped humanitarian supplies to thousands of Iraqis trapped on a mountain by militants from the Islamic State. President Obama authorized airstrikes if they become necessary.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, U.S. aircraft struck a military artillery unit in Iraq. The Pentagon says the airstrike was meant to protect U.S. personnel inside the city of Erbil. Fighters from the so-called Islamic State have been pressing closer to that city in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq.

STVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, this is the same extremist group, known as ISIS, that's been making gains throughout Northern and Western Iraq, as well as Syria, for the last few months. President Obama authorized the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last night.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We intend to stay vigilant and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We're also providing urgent assistance to any Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.

INSKEEP: ISIL - that's another of the acronyms used for this very same group. Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman begins our coverage. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so the president made that statement last night. Now the bombs are actually falling.

BOWMAN: That's right. Two F-18s from the George H.W. Bush carrier took part in these strikes, as well as a drone, I'm told. It took out an artillery piece that was firing rounds into Erbil. And as the president said, you have U.S. personnel in Erbil at a consulate and also dozens of U.S. military personnel in a joint operations center with Iraqi forces. So this is done to protect U.S. personnel. I'll also add, too, that ISIS has overrun a lot of the Iraqi weapons depots, so some of this - this artillery piece, in particular - likely came from Iraqi stocks. And, also, we know that they also have American 155 mm artillery pieces, so this could have been an American-made weapon.

INSKEEP: Oh, 155 mm howitzer. So this is a powerful, powerful gun. So we're learning a few other things there. Obviously, that the ISIS forces seem to be close enough to the Kurdish capital to shell it. Secondly, that by protecting U.S. personnel in Erbil, the United States is effectively defending that city. Is that a fair statement?

BOWMAN: I think it is. That's sort of a sidelight here. They are, in fact, helping the Kurdish forces. But the main effort here is to protect U.S. personnel. But there is great concern among defense officials about the status of Erbil now. The ISIS forces are moving closer, so there's a great deal of concern about that.

INSKEEP: And that raises another question about what the U.S. ambitions are here, Tom. You've already suggested this, but let's try to be as clear as we can. The president says he wants to protect U.S. personnel. I would imagine that Iraqis are hoping that this amounts to something more. Is it possible that it could become something more - some more overt, and definite and broad-based support for Kurdish or other Iraqi forces fighting ISIS?

BOWMAN: At this point, no. The president said this is a very narrowly-focused mission to provide humanitarian assistance to those who are religious minorities in the mountain, outside of Mosul. And they've already done that. They dropped some food and water. And this effort now is against - you know, is to protect U.S. personnel, not to serve as an air force for Iraqi forces. But we'll have to see what happens. If the ISIS forces continue to threaten Erbil, you could see more airstrikes. And, again, the focus is American personnel, but it could, of course, help the Iraqi forces fighting ISIS.

INSKEEP: Well, Tom, is this a case like Libya in 2011 or Syria in 2013, where President Obama seems to want authorize the minimum level of intervention that he sees as absolutely necessary?

BOWMAN: That's right, absolutely. He wants the Iraqi forces to take the fight to ISIS and not have the U.S., once again, get bogged down in these long-term wars. And we saw the same in Libya, where they provided assistance. A lot of this - that war was done by the British and the French with American help. And in Syria, too, they're providing some weapons and training to some of the rebels. But they don't want to get involved too much in Syria either. Again, this is part of the Obama doctrine - not to get deeply involved, not to have American troops on the ground, not to have Americans serve as the Air Force, but to basically have local forces take the fight to the enemy.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, Tom Bowman, you said these were planes off an aircraft carrier - the George H. W. Bush. Does the United States have the reach, the basing, the access to Iraq to do what they need to do, whatever it might be?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. Of course, from the carrier in the Northern Arabian Sea and also from Turkey, as well, where we believe these cargo planes came with the assistance that was airdropped into Northern Iraq. So there are plenty U.S. assets in the area and close enough to help out in this situation.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman.

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