WASHINGTON – The White House is weighing direct military strikes to stem an Islamic militant group's gains in Iraq, as well as humanitarian relief for thousands of displaced religious minorities in the country's north, according to U.S. defense officials and others familiar with the administration's thinking.
President Barack Obama huddled with his national security team Thursday morning to discuss the crisis as the Islamic State group made further gains. Airstrikes in particular would mark a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.
Officials said Obama could announce a decision as early as Thursday.
In recent days, the Islamic State militants have swept through villages in the north that are home to religious minorities including Christians and the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism. Furthering their gains, the extremists seized Iraq's largest dam Thursday, placing them in control of enormous power and water resources and access to the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
While the White House did not publicly outline the range of options under consideration, officials said the U.S. strongly condemns the extremists' assault on minorities.
"The situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "We are gravely concerned for their health and safety."
Earnest singled out the plight of the Yazidis. Thousands fled their homes after the Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death. Many of the Yazidis now are trapped on a mountain without food of water.
Obama used the threat of an imminent humanitarian crisis as a rationale for limited U.S. military action in Libya in 2010, as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi threatened a massacre in Benghazi. The U.S. and NATO partners launched a bombing campaign over Libya, with Obama moving forward without congressional approval.
If Obama were to approve humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis and others, it could be delivered via air drops by the U.S. military. Airstrikes could be used to provide cover allowing the air drops to be made safely.
The military could also advise and assist the Iraqi air force on where and how to deliver humanitarian relief supplies.
The people familiar with the administration's thinking insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
Even as the White House weighed potential military options, Earnest said Obama would stand by his pledge to not put U.S. combat troops back on the ground in Iraq.
"There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq," he said.
Obama did dispatch hundreds of military personnel to Iraq earlier this year to provide additional security for the U.S. Embassy and to help train Iraqi security forces as they seek to push back the Islamic extremists. At the time, Obama ruled out airstrikes and other direct military intervention until Iraqi leaders addressed their troubled political system.