The U.S. military continued to attack militants from the Islamic State group near Irbil Friday, conducting two additional air strikes to help defend the city where U.S. personnel are assisting Iraqi government forces.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said remotely piloted aircraft struck a terrorist mortar position Friday afternoon. When Islamic State fighters returned to the site, the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated.
About an hour later, four F-18 aircraft successfully struck a stationary convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position near Irbil. The aircraft executed two planned passes. On both runs, each aircraft dropped one laser guided bomb making a total of eight bombs dropped on target neutralizing the mortar and convoy.
Earlier Friday, Kirby said American planes dropped 250-kilogram (500 pound) laser-guided bombs on an artillery unit that was shelling Kurdish forces defending Irbil.
The Navy fighters were launched from the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, deployed in the Arabian Sea.
A senior administration official said the strikes came as Islamic State fighters had begun to advance and were beginning to threaten the periphery of the Kurdish city.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the same principle would apply to any threat to U.S. personnel and facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the American embassy in Baghdad.
U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday authorized the U.S. military to carry out «targeted airstrikes» against Islamic State extremists to protect American citizens in Iraq and, if necessary, free tens of thousands of members of the ancient Yazidi sect massed on a desert mountaintop.
Obama expressed fear the militants could conduct a campaign of genocide against the Yazidi, an Iraqi religious minority.
Fleeing Islamic State forces who had ordered them to convert to Islam or die, thousands of Yazidis and Iraqi Christians have been stranded for days without food, water or shelter on the slopes of Sinjar mountain.
The Associated Press cited an Iraqi human rights ministry spokesman who said late Friday that hundreds of Yazidi women were taken captive by Islamic State militants.
Kamil Amin said the women are below the age of 35 and some are being held in schools in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. He said the ministry learned of the captives from their families.
Islamic State extremists have brutally executed ethno-religious minorities and others who do not agree with their particular brand of Islam.
«They have threatened Christians to convert to Islam, pay taxes or be killed,» said Ido Babe Sheikh, an advisor to former Iraqi President Jalal Talibani.
The group, which has captured significant amounts of military hardware the U.S. had previously supplied Iraqi forces, now controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. It has declared the area a «caliphate,» and is actively recruiting other fighters to join the group.
«When we have the unique ability to help avert a massacre,» Obama said Thursday, the United States can act to avoid genocide.
The bombings represents the widest use of American military force in Iraq since U.S. troops pulled out in 2011, following nearly a decade of war.
Obama on Thursday repeated his pledge not to send back ground troops.
«As commander-in-chief,» he said, «I will not allow [the United States] to be dragged into another war in Iraq.»
Speaking from New Delhi, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the United States would continue to support the Iraqi government as well as Iraqi security forces against the extremist threat.
Humanitarian aid to refugees
Hagel said humanitarian aid also had been delivered to the Yazidi refugees. He said three aircraft dropped 72 bundles of emergency food and water supplies; 60 safely reached them.
Viyan Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, welcomed U.S. efforts to help his community but stressed more needs to be done.
«This morning, 15 children died because of not having food and water. What is most urgently needed is the transfer of the Yazidi people from Shingal mountain to a better and safer location, Dakhil told VOA’s Kurdish Service.
The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session late Thursday, calling on members to do all they can to support the Iraqi government and ease the suffering. The council said attacks on civilians because of their ethnic background or religion may constitute a crime against humanity.
The international community showed support for the refugees in northern Iraq.
Turkey dispatched five trucks of food, medicine, blankets and other basic goods, a senior official told Reuters.
That country, which lies on the northern borders of both Syria and Iraq, fears ISIL militants’ rapid move toward Irbil, Reuters noted. But Turkish officials distanced themselves from any involvement in Friday’s airstrikes, saying the U.S. air base in Turkey was not used.
The British air force will drop food aid to the refugees within the next few days, AFP reported.
While British officials backed Obama’s approval of airstrikes, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the U.K. would restrict itself to humanitarian aid and to a secondary role for the U.S. military effort.
«Our focus is on assisting that humanitarian mission,» Fallon said, «and using our military in support of the Americans in terms of refueling and surveillance to underpin their mission and to add to it with food drops of our own.
«We welcome what the Americans are doing now to, in particular to bring humanitarian relief, and to prevent any further suffering,» Fallon added.
Pope Francis has asked Cardinal Fernando Filoni to travel to northern Iraq and «meet with the people most affected» by the militant attacks, Catholic News Service reported Friday.
Filoni was «the only diplomat to remain in Iraq» at the start of the U.S.-led military invasion, the service reported, quoting a Vatican spokesman. The Vatican did not indicate when Filoni was expected to arrive.
U.S. restricts flights over Iraq
Also on Friday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration restricted any nonmilitary U.S. aircraft from from flying over Iraq because of «the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict,» it said in a press release.
Turkish Airlines said it had suspended service to Irbil effective immediately. Other carriers are reportedly ready to follow suit.
VOA’s Jeff Seldin and Kokab Farshori in Washington and Lisa Schlein in Geneva contributed to this report