U.S. Launches Airstrikes In Iraq To Drive Out ISIS

In a widely anticipated move, the U.S military launched airstrikes in Iraq on Friday, targeting ISIS insurgents in the country’s Kurdish north. The strikes came less than 24 hours after President Obama authorized them, and they’re being accompanied by humanitarian aid to the country’s besieged Yazidi minority, which is currently being targeted by ISIS in what Obama referred to as “a potential act of genocide.” However, the president flatly ruled out, as he has in the past, the possibility of “American troops returning to Iraq in a combat role.”

So far, U.S. F/A-18 jet fighters have launched two rounds of strikes near the Kurdish capital of Erbil, upon which ISIS fighters are rapidly advancing. According to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk, the planes have struck an ISIS convoy and a mortar position, destroying seven ISIS vehicles and killing an unspecified number of the group’s members. It’s unclear how long the bombings will continue.

ISIS, the militant Sunni group known for tweeting pictures of its beheaded foes, has been steadily taking over wide sections of Iraq over the last two months. Obama responded to ISIS’s initial advances by sending 300 “military advisors” to the country in an attempt to aid Iraq’s chronically incompetent military, but didn’t authorize any direct military action in the region.

However, several recent events changed the calculus. First, ISIS managed to drive out Kurdish military forces in the country’s north. The Kurds, a long-oppressed ethnic minority in the Middle East, are generally allied with the U.S. and control an autonomous region in the country’s north. The Kurdish military, known as the peshmerga, is regarded as a very competent force in the area, having played key roles both in capturing Saddam Hussein and tracking down Osama bin Laden. However, the peshmerga was recently driven out by ISIS fighters from its power base in the north, which heightened U.S. concerns regarding ISIS’s potency as a military force.

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Additionally, ISIS took full or partial control of the Mosul Dam, the largest damn in Iraq. In addition to giving the group control over a massive hydroelectric power source, this also gives ISIS the ability to wreak monumental destruction on the people of Mosul: The Pentagon found that intentionally sabotaging the dam could send a 65-foot tidal wave into the city, with unprecedented human, environmental and structural costs.

Lastly, the U.S. was sparked to action due to the plight of the Yazidi, another beleaguered minority group in Iraq. Unlike the Kurds, which number in the tens of millions, there are only an estimated 700,000 Yazidi worldwide, and 40,000 of them are currently stranded on Iraq’s Mount Sanjar. They’re encircled by ISIS members, which consider the Yazidi to be “devil-worshippers” and have already killed 500 of their ranks. The group is rapidly running out of food and water — some have reportedly already died of dehydration — but if they descend the mountain, they’ll be slaughtered. Therefore, in addition to sending food and water drops to the Yazidi, the U.S. is striking ISIS in an attempt to prevent what some are calling an attempted genocide.