First US airstrikes hit ISIS

The United States has conducted its first airstrikes on Sunni fighters in Iraq, attacking militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria near the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.

Two F/A-18 fighter jets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil in northern Iraq. 

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Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said ISIS was using artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil, where U.S. personnel are located. 

The decision to strike was made by U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, under authorization granted by President Obama on Thursday.

"As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIS when they threaten our personnel and facilities,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement. 

Obama announced on Thursday that he had authorized the military to conduct targeted airstrikes to aid Kurdish fighters and refugees under siege from ISIS.

The president also authorized humanitarian air drops of water and other supplies to help refugees holed up on an Iraqi mountain top, where they fled from ISIS.

Obama emphasized to a war-weary public that while no new ground troops would be sent to Iraq. It was necessary to authorize limited airstrikes against ISIS fighters to prevent a massacre on Mount Sinjar, where thousands of refugees are running out of food and water.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” Obama said. 

But he said that, when the United States is faced with a situation in which innocent people are “facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” the nation cannot “turn a blind eye.”

“We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said. “I’ve, therefore, authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.”

At the White House on Friday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Iraq mission will be "very limited in scope." He had no further updates on additional military action.

Obama had been reluctant to intervene in Iraq, despite advances by ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The administration has been pressing for Baghdad’s Shia-led government to work with other groups in Iraq and form a new government, and has been reticent about stepping in, which had led to criticism from Republican lawmakers.

A number of members of Congress offered support for Obama’s decision on Thursday, however.

“I am pleased that the United States military was able to provide much-needed humanitarian relief for innocent Iraqi civilians persecuted for their religious beliefs, and I support targeted airstrikes against ISIS terrorists threatening American interests,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “I urge the administration to lead by working with our allies to turn back ISIS and preserve America's hard-won gains in Iraq.”

Another reason Obama has been reluctant to take action in Iraq is because polls suggest most Americans want to stay out of the conflict.

In his remarks, Obama — who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq — emphasized that U.S. troops would not return to Iraq.

“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these," he said. "I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. 

“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he continued. 

The strikes come two weeks after the House approved a measure from Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) requiring Obama to get authorization from Congress before returning combat troops to Iraq.

Humanitarian airdrops have begun, with three U.S. cargo aircraft dropping 72 bundles of supplies, including 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 packaged meals. 

The cargo planes were escorted by two F/A-18 fighter jets. 

— This story was posted at 9:47 p.m. Thursday and was last updated at 1:17 p.m. Friday.

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