BAGHDAD – The U.S. military, three years after pulling out of Iraq, launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the country's northern region Friday, using drones and fighter jets to stem a Sunni insurgency led by the al-Qaida breakaway group.
Here's a look at how events unfolded Friday:
US AIRSTRIKES BEGIN:
The U.S. re-engagement in Iraq began when two Navy F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it near the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Later, unmanned aircraft hit a mortar position, and four F/A-18s destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy, U.S. officials said. The U.S. action was widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants' advance. U.S. forces had left Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. U.S. personnel in the country now includes about 500 U.S. troops at the Baghdad airport, including six military assessment teams, Apache helicopter crews, security forces and an anti-terrorism team. Dozens more were working with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Irbil. Despite Friday's intervention, President Barack Obama insists he will not allow the U.S. "to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."
YAZIDIS IN PERIL
U.S. military jets dropped food and water to imperiled religious refugees in northwestern Iraq. Around 50,000 followers of the Yazidi religion — half of them children, according to U.N. figures — are believed to have fled to the mountains outside Sinjar where many of them remain, trapped and running out of food and water. An Iraqi official said hundreds of Yazidi women have been taken captive by Sunni militants with "vicious plans." Yazidis, an isolated religious minority, have been persecuted for centuries. They speak Kurdish and are a mix of several traditions, borrowing from Christianity, Islam and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. The International Rescue Committee said it was providing emergency medical care for up to 4,000 dehydrated Yazidis, mostly women and children, who survived without food or water for up to six days before fleeing to a refugee camp in Syria.
Pope Francis was sending a personal envoy to Iraq to show solidarity with Christians forced from their homes. Amid new incursions by Sunni extremists in Christian villages of northern Iraq, Francis tweeted: "Please take a moment to pray for all those who have been forced from their homes in Iraq." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Sunni extremists' "campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide." Now-emptied Christian communities in northern Iraq date from the first centuries of Christianity.
KURDS HOLD THE LINE
Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have been northern Iraq's main line of defense against the Islamic State group's rapid advance, though they are stretched over a long front. Bolstered by U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish fighters said Friday they were prepared to die to defend their mostly autonomous homeland. Armed civilians joined the fight, donning their traditional Kurdish clothing of baggy high-waisted pants, held with wide sash belts. They face a well-armed opponent: Islamic State fighters seized massive amounts of new Iraqi army weapons abandoned by soldiers as the militants swept across northern and western Iraq in their June assault.
The Obama administration ordered U.S. airlines not to fly over Iraq, while carriers from other nations said they were suspending service to Irbil because of the hostilities. Germany's Lufthansa and British Airways have also suspended flights over Iraq. The U.S. State Department warned Americans against all but essential travel to Iraq and said those in the country were at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.