WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama ordered US warplanes back into the skies over Iraq on Thursday to drop food to refugees and if necessary launch air strikes to halt what he said was a potential "genocide."
The US air armada's first mission was to drop food and water to thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority besieged by Sunni extremist fighters from the so-called Islamic State (IS). Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have also fled.
Obama warned that he had also authorized the military to carry out targeted strikes in support of Iraqi forces to break the Islamists' advance or to protect US advisors working on the ground.
The president said US warplanes could also target Islamic State militants if they advance on the city of Arbil, where the US has a diplomatic presence and advisors to Iraqi forces.
"We plan to stand vigilant and take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the consulate in Arbil and embassy in Baghdad," he said.
A senior US defence official confirmed the mission had already dropped "critical meals and water for thousands of Iraqi citizens," referring to Yazidis trapped in the open on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. There will be more aid drops if necessary, another US official told reporters.
Obama said there were perhaps tens of thousands of civilian refugees, and he accused the IS of attempting "the systematic destruction of the entire people, which would constitute genocide."
The president admitted the United States can not act every time it sees injustice, but insisted: "We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.
"That's what we're doing on that mountain. I therefore authorized targeted air strikes if necessary to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege and protect the civilians trapped there," he added.