IRBIL, Iraq — The United States unleashed its first airstrikes in Northern Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria extremist army Friday amid a worsening humanitarian crisis. The extremists took captive hundreds of women from a religious minority, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians fled in fear.
Many of America’s allies back the U.S. intervention, pledging urgent steps to assist the legions of refugees and displaced people. Those in jeopardy include thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority whose plight — trapped on a mountaintop by the militants — prompted the United States to airdrop crates of food and water to them.
American planes conducted a second airdrop of food and water early Saturday for those trapped in the Sinjar mountains, said Pentagon chief spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby. Escorted by two U.S. Navy fighter jets, three planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies for the refugees, including more than 28,000 meals and more than 1,500 gallons of water, said Kirby, who spoke from New Delhi during a trip with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Islamic extremists’ “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it.”
Underscoring the sense of alarm, a spokesman for Iraq’s human rights ministry said hundreds of Yazidi women have been kidnapped by the ISIS army. Kamil Amin, citing reports from the victims’ families, said some of the women are being held in schools in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
“We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them,” Amin said. “We think that these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the human and Islamic values.”
For the U.S. military, which Obama withdrew from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war, the re-engagement began when two U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter/bombers dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it. The jets were launched from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, in the Persian Gulf, a military spokesman said. The Pentagon said the ISIS army was using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, and home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.
Later Friday, the United States launched a second round of airstrikes near Irbil, U.S. officials said. They said unmanned aircraft hit a mortar and four F/A-18s destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy
Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, the ISIS army has captured a string of towns and Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir. Ethnic and religious minorities, fearing persecution and slaughter, have fled as their towns fell.
Many had taken refuge in the Khazer Camp, set up near Irbil, but it was empty Friday as nearby fighting prompted families to flee once again.
Some made their way by car or on foot to Irbil; others were unaccounted for amid the sea of fleeing people. According to the U.N., more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, bringing the total this year to well over 1 million.
In Irbil, hundreds of uprooted men crowded the streets of a Christian-dominated neighborhood, expressing relief at the news of U.S. airstrikes.
Nazar, one man lingering outside a bare-bones building-turned-shelter, fled his mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya on Wednesday, when his home began to shudder from the blast of nearby mortar fire.
“We want a solution,” said Nazar. “We don’t to flee our homes and jobs like this. What is our future?”
In contrast to Washington’s decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against the ISIS army were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants’ advance.
“We thank Barack Obama,” said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the Religious Affairs Ministry in the Kurdish government.
In his announcement Thursday night, Obama had identified protecting the Yazidis and defending Americans as the two objectives for the airstrikes. On Friday, though, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the United States also is prepared to use military force to assist Iraqi forces and the Kurds’ peshmerga militia.
While Iraq’s military has proven unable in many cases to thwart the ISIS army’s capture of key cities, Earnest called the peshmerga a “capable fighting force” that had shown an ability to regroup effectively.
At a checkpoint about 23 miles from Irbil, the peshmerga vowed fierce resistance to any further ISIS army advances, but they also remarked on the ferocity of their foe.
Capt. Ziyran Mahmoud, 28, said ISIS army fighters wore suicide belts as they advanced in armored vehicles and would detonate themselves — killing soldiers from both sides — if Kurdish fighters came too close.
“They are ready to blow themselves up and die,” Mahmoud said, “but the peshmerga aren’t afraid. We are also ready to die for our homeland.”
The ISIS army captured Mosul in June, and then launched a blitz toward the south, sweeping over Sunni-majority towns almost to the capital, Baghdad. It already holds large parts of Western Iraq, as well as swaths of neighboring Syria.
Iraqi government forces crumbled in the face of the assault but have since been able to prevent the Sunni militants from advancing into Shiite-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defense against the militants, but their fighters are stretched over a long front trying to fend them off.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling in India, said that if the militants threaten U.S. interests in Iraq or the thousands of refugees in the mountains, the U.S. military has enough intelligence assets on the ground to clearly single out the attackers and launch effective airstrikes.
He also said more than 60 of the 72 bundles of food and water airdropped onto the mountain reached the people stranded there. The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 Globemaster III and two C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft. They were escorted by two F/A-18s from an undisclosed air base in the region.
The planes delivered 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals and were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes at low altitude.
The International Rescue Committee said it is providing emergency medical care for 4,000 of dehydrated Yazidis, mostly women and children, who survived without food or water for up to six days hiding in the Sinjar mountains before fleeing to a refugee camp in Syria, where a civil war is raging.
Officials in Britain, Germany and elsewhere have pledged financial aid for humanitarian efforts in Iraq, and several top European officials support Obama’s decision to intervene with airstrikes.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed special concern for the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.
“They fear slaughter if they descend back down the slopes, but face starvation and dehydration if they remain on the mountain,” Cameron said. The world must help them in their hour of desperate need.”
The Yazidis fled their homes after the ISIS army issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or be killed.
One Yazidi man, who identified himself as Mikey Hassan, said he, his two brothers and about a dozen other relatives fled into the Sinjar mountains and then escaped to the Kurdish province of Dohuk after two days by shooting their way past the militants. Hassan said he and his family went about 17 hours with no food before getting some bread. He said there were a few wells in the mountains, but they were largely ineffective because throngs of people were using them.
Yazidis belong to ancient religion seen by the ISIS extremists as heretical. The Sunni group sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, and has demanded that Christians either convert to Islam, pay a special tax or be killed.
Pope Francis also is engaged, sending an envoy to Iraq to show solidarity with Christians who have been forced from their homes. There also was a papal plea on Twitter: “Please take a moment to pray for all those who have been forced from their homes in Iraq.”
In response to the fighting, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and other passenger carriers canceled flights to and from Irbil.
The FAA banned American carriers from flying over Iraq, saying hostilities there could threaten safety. British Airways also said it is temporarily suspending flights over Iraq.