Obama authorises Iraq air strikes

Green light: US President Barack Obama has authorised the use of US air strikes in northern Iraq

US President Barack Obama has authorised limited air strikes to blunt the onslaught of Islamic militants in northern Iraq and began military airdrops of humanitarian supplies to besieged religious minorities to prevent a "potential act of genocide."

Speaking after meetings with his national security team, Obama - in his most significant response to the Iraq crisis - said he approved "targeted" use of air power to protect US personnel if Islamic State militants advance further toward the Kurdish capital Arbil or threaten Americans anywhere in the country, Reuters reported.

The air strikes would be the first carried out by the US military in Iraq since the withdrawal of its forces at the end of 2011, but Obama insisted he would not commit ground forces and had no intention of letting the US get dragged back into a war there.

News of Obama giving the green light for US air strikes in Iraq sent both Brent and US crude prices upwards as fears grew over potential supply disruptions from the Opec producer.

Obama took action amid international fears of a humanitarian catastrophe engulfing tens of thousands of members of Iraq's minority Yazidi sect driven out of their homes and stranded on Sinjar mountain under threat from rampaging militants of Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group. Many Iraqi Christians have also fled for their lives, Reuters reported.

"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide," Obama told reporters at the White House.

Obama was responding to urgent appeals from Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to help cope with an unfolding humanitarian crisis as the militants surged across northern Iraq.

It was unclear, however, whether the measures announced by Obama would be enough to halt the militant advance or shift the balance on the battlefield in favour of embattled Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Obama sent in a small number of US military advisers in June to help the Iraqi government's efforts to fend off the Islamic militant offensive, but he was reluctant to take direct military action. He had put the onus on Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government to help defuse the crisis.

Washington's calculus appeared to shift after Islamic State, which routed the Iraqi military in the north and seized a broad swath of territory in recent months, made recent gains against Kurdish forces and moved toward Arbil, capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.

Reuters photographs showed what appeared to be Islamic State fighters controlling a checkpoint at the border area of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, little over 30 minutes' drive from Arbil, a city of 1.5 million that is headquarters of the Kurdish regional government and many businesses.

The fighters had raised the movement's black flag over the guard post. However, a Kurdish security official denied that the militants were in control of the Khazer checkpoint, and the regional government said its forces were advancing and would "defeat the terrorists," urging people to stay calm.

The movement of the Islamic militants towards the Kurdish capital reportedly led US companies Chevron and ExxonMobil to begin evacuating staff from the semi-autonomous region prior to Obama's announcement of the potential air strikes.

Obama's decision to deepen US re-engagement in Iraq came after urgent deliberations by a president who won the White House in 2008 on a pledge to disentangle the US from the long, unpopular war there.

Until this week, most of Kurdistan had been protected from militants by its own armed forces, called the pesh merga. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Islamists, including Christians, Yazidis and others, have taken refuge in the Kurdish area.

The Islamic State's Sunni militants have swept across north-western Iraq in recent weeks. The Islamic State view Iraq's majority Shi'ites and minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious community, as infidels.

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