U.S. ready to strike ISIS targets in Iraq, drops supplies to besieged refugees

The New York Times quotes Kurdish and Iraqi officials as saying that American airstrikes had begun Thursday night on towns in northern Iraq seized by ISIS. The Kurdish officials said the bombings had initially targeted ISIS fighters who had seized the towns of Gwer and Mahmour near the main Kurdish city of Erbil.

The Washington Post reports that administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq had forced their hand, with as many as 40,000 people sheltering in the bare mountains without food, water, or access to supplies.

The decision to send C-130 transport planes to drop supplies for those stranded in the mountains necessitated the sending of jet fighters as escorts. The C-130s fly low and heavy, and would release the supplies from 500 to 1,200 feet.

James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of the Iraqi Army in 2007 and 2008, told the Times that forces with ISIS are not believed to have surface-to-air missiles, but they do have machine guns that could hit the planes at that altitude.

“These are low and slow aircraft,” General Dubik said. At the very minimum, he said, the United States would have to be prepared for “some defensive use of air power to prevent” the militant group from attacking American planes, or going after the humanitarian supplies themselves.

Military officials have also repositioned satellites for surveillance. The risk to the American crew of the C-130 planes conducting the humanitarian mission “would be much higher if we did not have improved reconnaissance and a protective air capacity,” General Dubik said.

Obama’s decision to authorize airstrikes against the Islamist militants is motivated not only by humanitarian concerns. Over the last few weeks it has become clear that ISIS commanders have decided not to go south in an effort to take over Baghdad, something which was probably beyond their capabilities. Instead, they have turned their attention east in an effort to expand the area under their control by pushing Kurdish forces back into Kurdistan. In May, when ISIS forces took over Anbar province, the Kurdish forces exploited the collapse of the Iraqi military to push west, taking over oil-rich areas outside Kurdistan. ISIS now wants to gain control over these areas.

The U.S. decision to strike ISIS is thus an effort to help the overstretched Kurds defend their positions, but also help protect the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim residents of the area, as they face an especially gruesome fate if ISIS is allowed to gain control of the region.