WASHINGTON (CNN) — U.S. fighter jets and drones repeatedly bombed Sunni Islamic extremists in northern Iraq, targeting what officials described as ISIS artillery units and convoys advancing on the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.
The airstrikes Friday ramped up America’s involvement in Iraq where ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, is seizing control of towns and key infrastructure in an advance that has forced hundreds of thousands to run for their lives.
News of the second round of U.S. airstrikes came just after the governor of Irbil told CNN that ISIS may be as close as 30 kilometers (just over 18 miles) from the city of more than a million people.
The operation began hours after President Barack Obama authorized “targeted airstrikes,” saying in a televised address late Thursday that the United States had an obligation to protect its personnel in Iraq and prevent a potential genocide of minority groups by ISIS.
Obama said there will be no buildup of U.S. combat troops in Iraq. “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” the President said.
Two U.S. F/A 18 fighters first struck an ISIS artillery unit outside of Irbil, dropping two 500-pound laser-guided bombs about 6:45 a.m. ET Friday, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
Later, a drone targeted an ISIS mortar position, Kirby said. When ISIS fighters returned to the site a short time later, the drone struck the target again, he said.
That was followed a short time later by a second round of airstrikes, carried out by four U.S. fighter jets, which targeted an ISIS convoy of seven vehicles and another mortar position, Kirby said.
The F/A 18s made two passes, dropping a total of eight laser-guided bombs, he said.
The United States has hundreds of military personnel in Iraq, including advisers sent in recent weeks to coordinate with Iraqi and Kurdish military officials in response to the ISIS rampage. The USS George H.W. Bush and other Navy ships also are in the region.
Airstrikes are crucial because ISIS fighters are well-armed and are outgunning the Kurdish forces, thanks to the weapons the militants seized from the Iraqi military in Mosul, Irbil Gov. Nawzad Hadi said.
Militants using U.S.-made weapons
Even as the airstrikes were under way, there was news that ISIS militants captured Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, just north of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. According to a senior Kurdish official, the militant fighters have been using U.S.-made weapons seized during fighting from the Iraqi army, including M1 Abrams tanks.
There had been conflicting reports about who controlled the dam on the Tigris River, with heavy fighting under way between ISIS fighters and Kurdish forces, known as Peshmerga. U.S. officials have warned that a failure of the dam would be catastrophic, resulting in flooding all the way to Baghdad.
In other fighting, an Iraqi airstrike killed 45 ISIS fighters and injured 60 Friday in the northern town of Sinjar, the country’s state-run National Media Center said.
U.S. flights prohibited
In other signs of a growing regional conflict: The Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying through Iraqi airspace “due to the hazardous situation created by the armed conflict.”
The developments showed that the lightning advance by ISIS fighters across northern Iraq this year has become a battle for the nation’s future and overall stability in a part of the world wracked for decades by periodic war.
In announcing his airstrike decision Thursday night, Obama said the militants would get hit “should they move towards the city.”
Kurdish leaders have been pleading for the United States or NATO to buttress their forces against ISIS from the air. The President seems to have heard their appeal.
“We do whatever is necessary to protect our people,” Obama said, adding, “We support our allies when they’re in danger.”
Before Obama announced the airstrikes, two U.S. military cargo planes airdropped 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 meals onto Mount Sinjar, where some Yazidi children had died from dehydration.
A Predator drone flying overhead indicates the Yazidis have 63 of the 72 pallets dropped with aid supplies. It’s not clear if the other pallets missed the drop zone or are in ISIS hands.
ISIS overran Sinjar last weekend, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee into surrounding mountains without food, water or shelter, and prompting concerns of a potential genocide. The Yazidis are of Kurdish descent, and their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect that draws from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
ISIS has executed people who don’t share their fanatical interpretation of Sunni Islam and posted videos of their killings to the Internet. “Convert to Islam or die” is the militants’ ultimatum to those captured.
Its members have also have beheaded victims and placed their heads on spikes to strike terror in the population, a senior administration official said.