Airstrikes in Iraq: What You Need to Know

President Obama has authorized the U.S. military to execute targeted airstrikes in Iraq.

The President takes no decision more seriously than the use of military force. So it's worth taking a few minutes to make sure you understand exactly what is happening in Iraq right now, who is involved, and why we are taking action. Here are a few answers to some key questions Americans may be asking:

1. What exactly did the President do?

On August 7, 2014, President Obama authorized two operations in the northern region of Iraq. First, he authorized the military to use limited airstrikes to protect American diplomatic and military personnel serving in the city of Erbil. Second, the United States is delivering humanitarian aid to thousands of Yezidis, Iraqi civilians, who have been forced to flee their homes and are now stranded on a mountainside — facing near-certain death without our assistance.

2. Why are airstrikes needed now?

Terrorist forces known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have been advancing across Iraq. ISIL had moved toward the city of Erbil, where many American diplomats and military advisors are currently serving. By August 7, ISIL forces had taken positions only minutes from Erbil.

In order to stop ISIL’s advance from threatening our people and facilities, the President ordered targeted airstrikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward Erbil.

3. Why can't we just evacuate the Americans from Erbil instead of taking military action? 

The American personnel in Erbil are vital to joint operations with the Kurds and the Iraqi government. Right now, we have the capability to see what’s happening on the ground and we have military capability to hit strategic targets.

4. What about the humanitarian mission? Why is that needed? 

ISIL forces have acted with particular brutality toward ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, including the Yezidi people in northern Iraq. Not only have they conducted executions and enslaved Yezidi women, they have threatened to systematically destroy the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute an act of genocide.

Thousands of Yezidis have fled their hometowns to Mount Sinjar in order to escape the advancing ISIL forces. They have no access to food or water — many are dying of thirst.

The United States has been airdropping food and water to the Yezidis on Mount Sinjar to prevent the loss of innocent lives. As the President said, "The United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide."

5. Will airstrikes be used to protect the Yezidi people on the mountain? 

The U.S. military has been undertaking limited airstrikes to help Iraqi forces that are fighting to beat back ISIL’s siege on the mountain and to protect the civilians there.

6. Are we the only ones fighting ISIL?

No. The United States is providing urgent assistance and arms to Iraqi forces in the region so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL. Britain and France have also committed to joining the United States in providing humanitarian aid to the Yezidi people.

7. Is ISIL more dangerous than al-Qaeda right now? 

While both are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda's principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. That's the direct threat that we have taken direct action against for many years. Right now, ISIL's primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.

8. Are we at war with ISIL? Will we be sending troops back to Iraq? 

No. There is no U.S. military solution to the larger situation in Iraq. The United States' chief goals are to protect our personnel and facilities, and to prevent a potential act of genocide. That is the scope of these operations. As the President said, we will support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, but no American combat troops will be returning to fight in Iraq. 

9. What's our plan moving forward? 

We will protect our citizens, and we will work with Iraqis and the international community to address the humanitarian crisis facing the Yezidi people.

As we carry out that mission, we will pursue a strategy that empowers Iraqi leaders to come together, forge an inclusive government, and build security forces that can fight back against threats like ISIL. The Iraqi people have named a new President, a new Speaker of Parliament, and a new Prime Minister--an important step towards forming a government that can unite communities in Iraq. The U.S. will work with this new government and other countries in the region on a broader counterterrorism strategy moving forward.

Learn more about the situation in Iraq and our plan to help ensure the security of Americans serving in Erbil.

Related Topics: Foreign Policy
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