Lawmakers in Washington welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to attack advancing Islamist militants in Iraq, but some questioned whether his administration has a long-term strategy to arrest Iraq's disintegration.
Two U.S. F/A-18 fighter jets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on Friday on an Islamic State mobile artillery piece used to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil, the Pentagon said.
The United States has a consulate and, since Iraq's latest security crisis erupted in June, a joint military operations center staffed by 40 U.S. servicemen in Arbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Members of the U.S. Congress supported the air strikes, but Republicans demanded the president spell out a long-term strategy. Even Obama’s closest Democratic allies made clear they wanted him to work with legislators, not circumvent them.
John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said he was “dismayed” at the lack of long-range planning.
“The president needs a long-term strategy – one that defines success as completing our mission, not keeping political promises – and he needs to build the public and congressional support to sustain it,” he said in a statement.
There was uncertainty, even expressed privately by some U.S. officials, about Obama's strategy, which he has said is not aimed at a sustained campaign against the Islamist militants who are threatening Iraqi Government and Kurdish positions.
Friday's strikes were the first aggressive U.S. military action in Iraq 2-1/2 years after Obama withdrew the last American troops, fulfilling a promise he campaigned on to win office in 2008 and ending a bloody U.S. war that began in 2003.
Obama authorized air strikes late on Thursday to avert "a potential act of genocide" of tens of thousands of members of the ancient Yazidi sect who have taken refuge on a desert mountaintop from Islamic State forces. The United States has also begun dropping relief supplies to the refugees.
The White House said on Friday the military engagement would not involve ground forces. But reflecting Washington's pressure on Iraqi politicians to form a government that includes Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, the White House said the authorization for limited action could eventually include more military support to Iraqi security forces once the country forms a new "inclusive" government.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the initial U.S. support would be military strikes to protect American personnel in Iraq and to address an urgent humanitarian situation.
But the United States also has a third goal "related to our belief and commitment to supporting integrated Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces as they unite the country to repel the threat" posed by Islamic State fighters, he said.
STRIKE TARGETED MILITANT ARTILLERY
Kirby said the decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under the authorization granted by Obama.
He said it occurred at 6:45 a.m. EDT, or 1:45 p.m. in Arbil (1045 GMT). According to military officials, the strike was launched from an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush.
An allied government source familiar with intelligence reports said the main target of the first U.S. air strike was an Islamic State artillery battery comprised of U.S.-made weapons stolen from the retreating Iraqi army.
Washington has indications the artillery targeted in the strikes was destroyed, a U.S. defense official said.
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot bent on establishing a caliphate and eradicating non-believers, have swept through northern Iraq since June. They are now encroaching on Arbil, seat of the Kurdish region's parliament and temporary home to scores of refugees who have fled other parts of Iraq.
U.S. officials said it was too soon to say whether events of the last 24 hours have prompted them to fall back from Arbil.
While Obama has insisted the United States will not commit ground troops again, since June he has ordered some 700 soldiers into Iraq to protect diplomatic personnel and facilities and to assess the state of Iraq's military, much of which melted away in the face of the Islamic State advance.
Reflecting concern over the violence in Iraq, U.S. aviation regulators on Friday restricted American airlines from flying over Iraq.