BAGHDAD/ARBIL, Iraq, Aug 8 (Reuters) - U.S. warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on Iraq's Kurdish capital on Friday after President Barack Obama said Washington must act to prevent "genocide".
Islamic State fighters, who have beheaded and crucified captives in their drive to eradicate unbelievers, have advanced to within a half hour's drive of Arbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdish region and a hub for U.S. oil companies.
A Pentagon spokesman said two F/A-18 aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf had dropped laser-guided 500-pound bombs on a mobile artillery piece used by the fighters to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil.
Obama authorized the first U.S. air strikes on Iraq since he pulled all troops out in 2011, arguing action was needed to halt the Islamist advance, protect Americans and safeguard hundreds of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who have fled for their lives.
The United States also dropped relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect, tens of thousands of whom are massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.
"Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, 'There is no one coming to help'," said Obama in a late night television address to the nation on Thursday. "Well, today America is coming to help."
"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide," he said.
The Islamic State was defiant. A fighter told Reuters by telephone the U.S. air strikes would have "no impact on us".
"The planes attack positions they think are strategic, but this is not how we operate. We are trained for guerrilla street war," he said. "God is with us and our promise is heaven. When we are promised heaven, do you think death will stop us?"
The advance of the Sunni militants, who also control a third of Syria and have fought this past week in Lebanon, has sounded alarm across the Middle East and threatens to unravel Iraq, a country divided between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralyzed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi'ite cleric all but demanded Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.
SHELTERING ON MOUNTAIN
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot rejected as too extreme by Osama bin Laden's successors, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
Attention has focused on the plight of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq, which has been one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.
"The stakes for Iraq's future can also not be clearer," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday. The Islamic State's "campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide."
The U.S. Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar, home of the Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism.
The Islamic State considers them to be "devil worshippers". After fighters ordered them to leave, convert or die, most fled their towns and villages to camp out on Sinjar mountain, an arid peak where they believe Noah settled after the biblical flood.
"After we fled to the mountain, I returned one day to recover belongings and I saw the bodies of the elderly disabled men who had been shot dead by the Islamic State. They were too old to flee. I can't forget that scene," said Akram Edo, who escaped to Kurdish-held territory with seven children.
His brother Hameed Edo, still back on the mountain with five children, told Reuters by telephone water was running out and no aid had arrived for the civilians trapped in the wilderness.
Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi lawmaker in Baghdad, said: "We hear through the media there is American help, but there is nothing on the ground.... Please save us! SOS! save us!" he said. "Our people are in the desert. They are exposed to a genocide."
TRAMPLE OUR DEAD BODIES
In the Kurdish capital, suddenly near the front line for the first time after a decade of war, defiant residents said they were stockpiling weapons and prepared to defend the city.
"People with children took them to their families (outside Arbil), but the men have stayed," said Abu Blind, 44, working at a tea stall in Arbil bazaar. "They will have to trample over our dead bodies to reach Arbil."
The Kurdish region has until now been the only part of Iraq to survive the past decade of civil war without a serious security threat. Its vaunted "peshmerga" fighters - those who confront death - also controlled wide stretches of territory outside the autonomous zone, which served as sanctuary for fleeing Christians and other minorities when Islamic State fighters arrived in the region last month.
But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of an advance by the fighters, who have heavy weapons they seized from Iraqi army troops that abandoned their posts in June. In addition, the fighters are flush with cash looted from banks.
Christians, many of them already refugees who had sought shelter in peshmerga-controlled areas, were suddenly forced to flee. Tens of thousands of Christians fled on Thursday when the Islamic State overran their hometown, Qaraqosh.
Shamil Abu Madian, a 45-year-old Christian, told Reuters he had first quit the city of Mosul when it fell in June. He initially sheltered in a town protected by the peshmerga, but was forced to flee again in panic in the middle of the night when the Kurdish peshmerga troops suddenly vanished.
"We were not able to take anything with us except some clothes in a nylon bag," he said. "People are living on sidewalks, in public gardens, anywhere."
A United Nations humanitarian spokesman said some 200,000 people fleeing the Islamists' advance had reached the town of Dohuk on the Tigris River in Iraqi Kurdistan and nearby areas of Nineveh province. Tens of thousands had fled further north to the Turkish border, Turkish officials said.
AYATOLLAH CITES "GRAVE MISTAKE"
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.
Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist whose foes accuse him of fueling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarizing figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old scholar whose word is law for millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and beyond, has repeatedly pushed for politicians to break the deadlock and reunify the country. His weekly sermon on Friday, read out by an aide, was his clearest call for Maliki to go.
Though he did not mention Maliki by name, he said those who cling to posts were making a "grave mistake".
Reuters photographs on Thursday showed the insurgents had raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45 km (28 miles) from Arbil. U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron began evacuating expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan on Thursday. Smaller oil companies also evacuated staff and cut back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on Thursday and Friday.
The Islamists' lightning offensive and the threat of U.S. military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets such as gold and German government bonds.
Obama, who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq to fulfill a campaign pledge, insisted he would not commit ground forces and had no intention of letting the United States "get dragged into fighting another war in Iraq".
Questions were quickly raised in Washington about whether selective U.S. attacks on militant positions and humanitarian air drops would be enough to shift the balance on the battlefield against the Islamist forces.
"I completely support humanitarian aid as well as the use of air power," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after Obama's announcement. "However the actions announced tonight will not turn the tide of battle." (Additional reporting from Isabel Coles in Arbil, Michael Georgy in Baghdad, Michael Shields in Vienna, Bill Trott and Missy Ryan in Washington and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Peter Graff, editing by Peter Millership)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/16/2014 6:17 PM EDT
US Military: Fighters, Drone Aircraft Strike Militants In N Iraq
BREAKING: US military: Fighters, drone aircraft strike militants near Irbil and Mosul Dam in Iraq— The Associated Press (@AP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 6:07 PM EDT
Kurdish Officials Say 300 Killed In Friday 'Massacre'
Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.
.4/ 1000 women were taken as prisoners by #IS split into 2 groups. The "pretty incl gilrs aged btwn 10-11 and the others.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 5:57 PM EDT
British PM: Islamic State Militants Could Target UK
Islamic State militants in Iraq could grow strong enough to target the UK unless action is taken - PM David Cameron http://t.co/k2i5CjTm2S— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 4:49 PM EDT
NYT Correspondent Recounts Iraq Helicopter Crash
New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.
Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.
Read her moving account on The New York Times here.
08/16/2014 2:23 PM EDT
Iraq Refugees Learn Of Yazidi Massacre
The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Watch the BBC report here.
08/16/2014 1:03 PM EDT
U.S. Provides Air Support To Kurdish Offensive
Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.
More from AFP:
Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.
"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
08/16/2014 12:54 PM EDT
The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.
Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.
But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.
"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.
08/16/2014 11:38 AM EDT
U.S.-Backed Kurds Attempt To Recapture Mosul Dam
#BREAKING: US-backed Kurds in bid to retake Iraq's largest dam: general— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 11:14 AM EDT
Airstrikes Target Islamic State After Reports Of Yazidi Massacre
Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
08/15/2014 6:31 PM EDT
U.S. May Speed Up Aid To Iraq Despite Billions Already Spent
The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.
Read the full story here.