WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama announced Thursday night he had authorized the Pentagon to launch targeted airstrikes if needed to protect Americans from Islamic militants in northern Iraq and help Iraqi security forces protect civilians under siege, threatening to revive U.S. military involvement in the country's long sectarian war.
In a televised late-night statement from the White House, Obama also said American military forces had already carried out airdrops of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities desperately in need of food and water.
"Today, America is coming to help," he declared.
A displaced Christian boy sleeps on a chair as he settles with his family at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Thursday.
The announcements reflected the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government. The food and water supplies were delivered to the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on a mountain without food and water. The Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after the Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death.
Obama, who has staked much of his legacy as president on ending the Iraq war, acknowledged that the prospect of a new round of U.S. military action would be a cause for concern among many Americans. He vowed anew not to put American combat troops back on the ground in Iraq and said there was no U.S. military solution to the crisis.
"As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be drawn into fighting another war in Iraq," Obama said.
Even so, he outlined a rationale for airstrikes if the Islamic State militants advance on American troops in the northern city of Irbil and the U.S. consulate there. The troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of the White House response to the extremist group's swift movement across the border with Syria and into Iraq.
"When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "That's my responsibility as commander in chief."
He said he had also authorized the use of targeted military strikes if necessary to help the Iraqi security forces protect civilians.
Obama spoke following a day of urgent discussions with his national security team. He addressed the nation only after the American military aircraft delivering food and water to the Iraqis had safely left the drop site in northern Iraq.
The Pentagon said the airdrops were performed by one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together delivered a total of 72 bundles of food and water. They were escorted by two F/A-18 fighters 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 a low altitude.
The president cast the mission to assist the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, as part of the American mandate to assist around the world when the U.S. has the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.
In those cases, Obama said, "we can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide."