American warplanes and drones struck Islamist militants near this northern Iraqi city on Friday, putting the U.S. military back in action in the skies over Iraq less than three years after the troops withdrew and President Barack Obama declared the war over.
The strikes – in part by F/A-18 combat jets flying from the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf – were limited in scope.
But they helped temper days of building panic across the north of the country as militants with the extremist Islamic State have sliced through a string of towns and villages on the outskirts of the Kurdish region and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives.
They also presented the first significant challenge to months of unchecked expansion by the al-Qaida offshoot.
It has swept through much of Iraq and neighboring Syria over the past year, annihilating opponents, capturing valuable resources and declaring the creation of an Islamic caliphate in a nation-size chunk of territory.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced three separate strikes by multiple aircraft against militant positions that it said were firing on Kurdish forces protecting Irbil, saying that they had “successfully eliminated” artillery, a mortar position and a convoy of extremist fighters.
Kurdish media and officials, who said the attacks had had a “devastating” impact on militant positions, claimed other, unconfirmed attacks that were farther afield.
U.S. officials also stressed that the American intervention was narrowly aimed at the protection of American diplomats and officials living in Irbil, where the large U.S. consulate has absorbed evacuees from the embassy in Baghdad, and that the U.S. military runs a joint operations center alongside Kurdish forces.
“There are American military and diplomatic personnel in Irbil,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing in Washington. “The protection of American personnel in Iraq is a top priority, and one that merits the use of military force.”
He emphasized that the authorization for airstrikes “is very limited in scope,” but he did not rule out additional strikes to protect the tens of thousands of members of the minority Yazidi faith trapped by Islamic State fighters on a mountaintop.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested the U.S. intervention, Earnest said. But he and other U.S. officials made clear that more comprehensive U.S. engagement against the militants will not happen unless feuding politicians in Baghdad establish a more inclusive government capable of resolving Sunni grievances.
The Iraqi parliament is scheduled to choose a new prime minister, perhaps as early as Sunday, according to U.S. officials who have made clear their preference that Maliki step down.
As news of the strikes spread, jihadist fighters and supporters took to Twitter to express glee that the United States had become embroiled in their battle, threatening to shoot down planes, exact revenge and conquer other American allies in the region.
“This crisis will become a gift and you shall remember this: Our State will enter Irbil and America will fall, and then the Gulf will be ours,” one purported jihadi tweeted.
Response to the strikes was limited from Congress, which is in a late-summer recess. While most who offered an opinion supported Obama’s decision, some Republicans criticized him for waiting as Islamic State forces spread across Iraq over the past two months.
Others warned Obama against expanding the effort without seeking congressional approval.
“If further sustained military action is necessary, it is incumbent on Congress to review all the facts, debate the issue and vote to authorize any additional sustained military action,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd District, said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-2nd District, said, “I urge the president to present to the American people his vision and plan to elevate peace and stability in Iraq. Should that ever include the introduction of U.S. armed forces into hostilities, the president must first seek and receive authorization from Congress.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-4th District, wrote on Twitter: “The Administration’s failure to devise a strategy for the Middle East shouldn’t detract from the incredible bravery of our servicemembers.”
For families of the service members on the carrier Bush, it is a time of increased concern, but also pride and solidarity.
“I’m very proud of him and will continue to stand next to him every step of the way,” said Whisper Breitenborn, whose husband’s air squadron is attached to the Bush.
The full-time mother and their 10-month-old son just moved to Virginia Beach, but Breitenborn said she was well-equipped to hold down the fort as her husband participates in actions over Iraq.
“I don’t need him to worry about us at home,” she said. “It’s my job to keep our home going while he’s away. It’s his job to protect and keep us safe.”
Pilot writer Dianna Cahn contributed to this report