U.S. officials are "extremely concerned" by rapid-fire military advances by ISIS forces in Iraq and are prepared to order airstrikes if the Islamic extremists directly attack the Kurdish capital of Erbil or take further action against tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees massed on a mountaintop, U.S. officials told NBC News on Thursday.
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters on Thursday were simultaneously threatening Erbil, fighting for control of a key northern dam and menacing about 40,000 members of the Yazidi religious sect who fled to the top of Mount Sinjar under threat of mass execution. The latter situation prompted the U.S. to begin a humanitarian airdrop mission late in the day to help the refugees, who practice a form of Zoroastrianism.
ISIS’ continuing military advances prompted the White House to ask the Pentagon to come up with plans for possible military action against ISIS for the first time since its forces swept southward out of Syria in April and seized several key Iraqi cities, including Mosul, U.S. officials told NBC News.
The U.S. has been flying F-18 attack aircraft, B-1 bombers and MQ-1 Predators over Iraq for several weeks on surveillance missions. These could be used for air cover for humanitarian airdrops or to protect U.S. assets in the area in the event of a direct ISIS attack on Erbil, where about 40 U.S. military personnel are operating at a joint operations center.
ISIS has MANPADs — shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles — and other anti-aircraft weapons that could threaten U.S. aircraft that may be flying lower to the ground.
The USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier strike group — which includes four destroyers, at least one cruiser, an amphibious assault ship and a dock landing ship — also is in the Persian Gulf and could participate in any military operations.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. was keeping a close eye on fighting for control of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in Iraq, and the Mosul dam, a key piece of Iraq’s infrastructure.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP-Getty Images file
A general view shows the Mosul dam on the Tigris River north of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Oct. 31, 2007.
Harf called the situation at the dam "fluid," but she said latest reports indicated that ISIS fighters had taken control of it.
"We are extremely concerned about this development," she said. "The dam is a vital part of Iraq's infrastructure, as it controls water levels on the Tigris River and is also a key source of water and electricity generation for the Iraqi people. So we're closely coordinating with ... Iraqi officials in both Baghdad and Erbil to counter this development."
U.S. officials said the situation in Erbil also was growing more tense, with heavily armed ISIS fighters using weapons that they seized from fleeing Iraqi troops, to pound the Kurdish Peshmerga forces protecting the capital. An official who spoke with NBC News indicated that there was increasing concern that Erbil could be in jeopardy of falling.
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Harf said the U.S. troops in the joint operation center in Erbil were working directly with the Kurds to "share information, to help them with this threat." In addition, she said the Obama administration was "reviewing [the situation] to see what more we can do."
So far, the U.S. has sent about 800 troops to Iraq to advise the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad, and it has increased delivery of Hellfire missiles to the Iraqi military.
First published August 7 2014, 5:01 PM