US warplanes struck Iraq on Friday for the first time since American troops pulled out in 2011, attacking Islamist fighters advancing towards the Kurdish region after President Barack Obama said Washington must act to prevent “genocide”.
The fighters had advanced to within a half hour’s drive of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region and a hub for U.S. oil companies. A Pentagon spokesman said two F/A-18 aircraft dropped laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece used by Islamic State fighters to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil.
Obama authorised air strikes after tens of thousands of Christians fled for their lives from Islamic State fighters who have crucified and beheaded captives.
The United States also started to drop relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from the fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.
In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralysed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi’ite cleric all but demanded Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot bent on establishing a caliphate and eradicating unbelievers, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other minorities have fled from Islamic State fighters who have broadcast their killings of captives on the Internet.
The retreat of the Kurds has brought the Islamists to within a short drive of Erbil, the prosperous capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. US and European oil companies there ordered emergency evacuations of their staff.
AMERICA “COMING TO HELP”
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help’,” said Obama in a late night television address to the nation on Thursday. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said.
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.
Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist whose foes accuse him of fuelling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarising figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old scholar whose word is law for millions of Shi’ites in Iraq and beyond, has repeatedly continued…