WASHINGTON -- US President Barack Obama has ordered airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a fundamentalist terrorist group, in an effort to protect dozens of Americans and tens of thousands of frightened religious minorities from the threat of imminent slaughter.
Nearly 40,000 Yazidis, an ancient ethnic religious minority, have fled to a mountaintop in northern Iraq and are now surrounded by militants of ISIS. The Sunni Islamic group has called for the mass killing of all nonbelievers.
"ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," the president said, speaking from the State Dining Room of the White House in a late evening televised address. "So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
Overnight, the US military successfully delivered aid by airdrop to the Yazidis, including food and water. Many have already died from starvation, thirst and the summer heat, according to reports.
"When we face a situation like we do on that mountain— with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help— in this case, a request from the Iraqi government— and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye," Obama said.
"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide," he continued. "Today, America is coming to help."
Forty American personnel are also on the ground in the nearby city of Erbil, sent to Iraq in the first place by the Obama administration to advise the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during ISIS' initial advance from Syria through Iraq's northern territories.
The US has prepared "targeted" strikes against ISIS as it bears down on the city, should its convoys advance, the White House said.
ISIS now controls large swaths of the country's north and Syria's east, issuing license plates and collecting taxes from people under its domain. ISIS has called for the enslavement and genital mutilation of women, and the murder of all men who are not Sunni, and who will not convert.
At least 4 million women live in the region currently under ISIS control.
Over the weekend, as the world watched developments in Gaza, ISIS launched an expansive operation throughout contested areas of Iraq, senior US administration officials said.
"It was swift, it was effective— they acted with tremendous military efficiency," one such official said on Thursday night, in a call with reporters.
"For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on Thursday night. "With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die."
Obama has acted "expeditiously and appropriately," Kerry asserted, calling on the international community to follow and the Iraqi government to proceed with the rapid formation of a new government and selection of a prime minister.
At the end of his statement, Obama said that the order was a demonstration of American leadership— and of its continued role in the world as a moral compass.
"We do whatever is necessary to protect our people," he said. "We support our allies when they’re in danger. We lead coalitions of countries to uphold international norms. And we strive to stay true to the fundamental values- the desire to live with basic freedom and dignity— that is common to human beings wherever they are."