BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: US warplanes struck Iraq yesterday for the first time since American troops pulled out in 2011, attacking Islamist fighters advancing towards the Kurdish region after President Barack Obama said Washington must act to prevent “genocide”.
The fighters had advanced to within a half hour’s drive of Arbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region and a hub for US oil companies. A Pentagon spokesman said two F/A-18 aircraft dropped laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece used by Islamic State fighters to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil.
Obama authorised air strikes after tens of thousands of Christians fled for their lives from Islamic State fighters who have crucified and beheaded captives.
The United States also started to drop relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from the fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.
In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralysed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi’ite cleric all but demanded Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot bent on establishing a caliphate and eradicating unbelievers, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other minorities have fled from Islamic State fighters who have broadcast their killings of captives on the Internet.
The retreat of the Kurds has brought the Islamists to within a short drive of Arbil, the prosperous capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. US and European oil companies there ordered emergency evacuations of their staff.
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help’,” said Obama in a late night television address to the nation on Thursday. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said.
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.
Maliki, whose foes accuse him of fuelling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarising figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Last month, Shia militia and government troops halted the advance of Islamic State fighters north of Baghdad and on the capital’s western and southern ramparts.
Over the past week, the fighters — deploying heavy weapons they seized from fleeing government troops and flush with looted funds — turned against the Kurds, who have ruled themselves in comparative peace in three mountainous northern provinces while the rest of Iraq was torn by a decade of sectarian bloodshed.
Photographs on Thursday showed the insurgents had raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45km from Arbil, a city of 1.5 million which became an oil boomtown when the rest of Iraq was often too dangerous for foreign staff.
US oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron evacuated expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan on Thursday. Smaller oil companies also evacuated staff and cut back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on Thursday and yesterday.
The Islamists’ lightning offensive and the threat of US military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets such as gold and German government bonds.
Attention has focused on the plight of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq, which has been one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.
“The stakes for Iraq’s future can also not be clearer,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday. The Islamic State’s “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.”
Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism, are among a handful of pre-Islamic minority groups who survived for centuries in northern Iraq.
They are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, most living in a small area of northern Iraq, with small communities scattered in the Caucasus and Europe. Islamic State fighters consider them “devil worshippers”.
The US Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar.
Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil, who is in touch with Yazidis sheltering on Sinjar mountain, said the aid was insufficient.
“We hear through the media there is American help, but there is nothing on the ground,” he told Reuters in Baghdad. “Please save us! SOS! save us!” he said several times. “Our people are in the desert. They are exposed to a genocide.”
He estimated 250,000 Yazidis were seeking shelter on the arid mountain, which the community considers the holy site where Noah’s ark settled after the biblical flood. Other estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees in the tens of thousands.