WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday he authorized "targeted air strikes" if needed to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq, as well as air drops of food and water to religious minorities in Iraq who are under siege from Islamic militants and trapped on a mountain top.
The U.S. military made an initial air drop of meals and water to thousands of civilians threatened by militants on Thursday. The aircraft that made the drop safely exited the region, the official said.
"Today, America is coming to help," Obama said.
Innocent families face the prospect of "genocide," Obama said, justifying U.S, military action that could eventually include air strikes.
The U.S. "cannot turn a blind eye," Obama said.
The administration has been mulling options for weeks, but the issue has come to a head with a mounting humanitarian catastrophe in northern Iraq where the Yazidis, a small religious minority, are trapped on a mountain top surrounded by Islamic militants.
The president's announcement Thursday amounts to a significant escalation of involvement in the growing Iraqi crisis, but Obama attempted to assure the American public that it would not lead to U.S. involvement in a ground war there.
The air strikes would be used to prevent militants from reaching Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. Irbil is home to a U.S. Consulate and a joint U.S.-Iraqi security base.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported, citing Kurdish sources, that airstrikes had started. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, quickly denied those reports.
"Press reports that US has conducted airstrikes in Iraq completely false. No such action taken," Kirby said in a statement on Twitter.
The Yazidis are a tiny religious group that were forced to flee their homes when militants attacked Sinjar in northern Iraq. The militants consider the Yazidis as apostates.
Tens of thousands of refugees fled into the mountains, perhaps hoping to reach the Kurdish region in the north, but were trapped because of militant activity between the mountain and the Kurdish area, and are running short on food and water.
Iraqi aircraft have attempted to airdrop supplies to the Yazidis but with limited success. Dropping supplies, particularly on a mountain top, is difficult, as packages of food and water break open on impact.
The U.S. Air Force has extensive experience with air dropping supplies, which they regularly do in the mountains of Afghanistan with accuracy.
Air strikes could be used to blunt the battlefield successes of the militants, which now control about one-third of Iraq's territory.
The militants, who belong to the Islamic State, have had a string of recent successes in the north, placing pressure on the White House to act.
On Thursday militants attacked a string of Christian villages, worsening an already desperate humanitarian crisis and dealing a blow to the Kurdish forces defending the region.
Reports from the region also indicated that the militants may have seized Mosul Dam, a massive hydroelectric structure that would give the rebels control of resources and the ability to flood a wide swath of territory.
The Associated Press said the reports were based on residents who live near the dam who asked not to be named.
The militants were also fighting in an effort to seize the Haditha dam in the west. The two facilities would allow rebels to control water flowing south in the Tigris and Euphrates and much of the power supply for Baghdad.
The developments this week were particularly worrying because the militants dealt a blow to the Kurdish forces, called the peshmerga, which have a reputation of being disciplined and well trained forces. The peshmerga were defending Sanjir and the Christian villages that were overrun by militants.
The militants have been pressing the pershmerga all along the border of the Kurdish region, making it hard for the Kurdish forces to concentrate their forces in order to effectively defend towns or to counterattack, said Jessica Lewis, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
The strategy appears to have worked for the militants. "This tells us (Islamic State) ... is a formidable force," Lewis said.