Why the U.S. Is ‘Coming to Help’ Iraq, Months After the Rise of ISIS

Photo: REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor

Following President Obama's authorization of new air stikes in Iraq, the Pentagon announced Friday morning that the bombing has begun. Two U.S. Navy F-18 fighter jets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece belonging to ISIS, according to Press Secretary John Kirby. The artillery was being used "against Kurdish forces defending Erbil, near U.S. personnel," he said on Twitter. The United States is now officially fighting again in Iraq.

In a televised statement on Thursday night, President Obama announced that he had approved limited air strikes targeting the ISIS militants in Iraq. Obama laid out his case for intervention, describing the plight of the Yazidi people whom the militants have trapped on Mount Sinjar. "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.

The president said the United States is acting at the request of the Iraqi government, but when Iraq's prime minister asked the United States to conduct air strikes in May as Islamic extremists began taking over parts of the country, Obama said no. Here's why the president has decided that it's time for the U.S. military to strike ISIS, despite his deep reluctance to get involved in another conflict in Iraq.

The situation in Iraq has worsened recently.

For months, the news out of Iraq has been consistently horrifying, but it's been overshadowed in recent weeks as the world turned its attention to the tragic events in Ukraine and Gaza. To recap, after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (which is now going by just "the Islamic State") took over some major Iraqi cities in June, President Obama deployed several hundred American troops to assist Iraqi soldiers and protect U.S. personnel at the American Embassy in Baghdad. While Obama was reportedly considering targeted air strikes all along, he repeatedly said Iraqi leaders needed to find a way to deal with ISIS. "We can't do it for them," he said in June, shortly after ISIS took Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. "Ultimately it's up the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems."

At the time it was thought that ISIS was focused on taking Baghdad, but Shiite militias held them back. Recently ISIS has made advances in the northern province of Nineveh, and they appear to be pushing toward the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmerga is a relatively large and well-trained military, but in the past two days ISIS managed to take six towns they were guarding.

Peshmerga fighters at their camp in Erbil on June 14, 2014. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

"This isn't an equal fight between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State," Yonadam Kanna, a member of Iraq's parliament, told The Wall Street Journal. "The Islamic State has much bigger and more powerful weapons than the Peshmerga do. These people want to die and have lunch with the Prophet Muhammad. The Peshmerga want to live and go home to have dinner with their wives. They won't play as dirty as the Islamic State does in war."

ISIS is targeting religious minorities.

ISIS has been brutally murdering people in Syria and Iraq regardless of their faith, but reports of religious persecution have increased as the militants moved into northern Iraq, an area that is home to many small religious groups. Human Rights Watch reports that when ISIS first took Mosul, it told Christians and Yazidis, who are ethnically Kurdish but follow a pre-Islamic religion, that they were "welcome" and had "nothing to fear." Then in July, the militants began imposing Islamic law and marking Christian homes. Eventually, ISIS circulated a decree that said Christians in Mosul could convert to Islam and pay a tax, or leave the city. If they failed to comply, "then there is nothing to give them but the sword."

Iraqi Christians who fled the village of Qaraqush take refuge in Saint Joseph church in Erbil on August 7, 2014. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

ISIS may be committing genocide against the Yazidis.

Most Christians in the Ninevah province have fled their homes, and dozens of minorities have been hunted down and murdered, but what drew the world's attention back to Iraq was the persecution of the Yazidis. There are only about 600,000 members of the ancient sect worldwide, and most live in northern Iraq. ISIS took the town of Sinjar over the weekend, and most of the town's 300,000 residents fled after the militants made a now-familiar threat. "We are being told to convert or to lose our heads," said Khuldoon Atyas, who stayed in city. "There is no one coming to help."

Yazidi women who fled Sinjar take shelter at a school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on August 5, 2014. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Many Yazidis didn't make it out in time, and according to NPR hundreds of men were slaughtered, and the women were taken as slaves. About 40,000 Yazidis fled up Mount Sinjar, and while there are some fighters holding back ISIS militants, all routes down the mountain are blocked. Now they're stranded on the mountain with no supplies, and dozens of children have died as a result of dehydration.

On Tuesday, Vian Dakhil, the MP representing the Yazidis in Iraq's parliament, broke down in tears while begging her government to help those stuck on the mountain. "There is now a campaign of genocide being waged on the Yazidis," Dakhil said. "Brothers, leave all political disputes aside, we want humanitarian solidarity! Speak here in the name of humanity: save us! save us!"

As the Washington Post explained, the Iraqi military is not capable of dropping supplies for such a large population on rugged terrain. Pentagon officials said that so far they have dropped 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 meals ready to eat, and they intend to continue the drops as needed.

There are U.S. personnel stationed in Erbil.

Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, has been more stable than the rest of Iraq for years, so when ISIS threatened Baghdad in June, some Americans were relocated from the embassy there to the consulate in Erbil. Some American companies did the same with their employees, and it's unclear how many U.S. citizens are in the city now. Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, said the U.S. government will act quickly to evacuate Americans if they think the consulate may come under attack. "They have an itchy finger especially after Benghazi, they're not going to let Americans get chopped up and put on the internet," he told Mother Jones.

Obama described the mission far more delicately, and in more patriotic terms, during his address on Thursday night. "When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," he said. "That's my responsibility as commander in chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That's a hallmark of American leadership. That's who we are."

This post has been updated throughout.