By Jeff Seldin, VOA News
PENTAGON -- The U.S. military launched two rounds of airstrikes Friday in northwestern Iraq, using drones and fighter jets.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said remotely piloted aircraft Friday struck Islamic State militants near Irbil. He said fighter planes later dropped eight bombs on vehicles and a mortar position in the area.
He said the U.S. military conducted the strikes to help defend Irbil, where U.S. personnel are assisting the government of Iraq.
Earlier Friday, the U. S. military dropped 250-kilogram [500-pound] laser-guided bombs on an artillery unit that was shelling Kurdish forces defending Irbil.
A senior administration official said the strikes came as the Islamic State extremists began advancing and were beginning to threaten the periphery of the Kurdish city.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the same principle would apply to any threat to U.S. personnel and facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the American embassy in Baghdad.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday authorized U.S. military planes to carry out "targeted airstrikes" against the Islamic State extremists as well as deliver food to stranded refugees.
On Friday, Obama sent a letter to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, in accordance with the War Powers Resolution, describing the situation
Obama said he had authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq as necessary to protect American personnel in Iraq from the advance of Islamic State militants toward Irbil. Obama said he also authorized the military to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday Obama had not set any specific end date for the military operations.
Religious minorities targeted
Islamic State extremists have brutally executed ethnic-religious minorities and others who do not agree with their particular brand of Islam.
Speaking from New Delhi, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the United States would continue to support the Iraqi government, as well as Iraqi security forces against the Islamic State militants.
U.S. military aircraft dropped humanitarian aid for a second straight day Saturday to thousands of mainly Christian and Yazidi refugees. who fled their homes in the face of the Islamic fighters' advance and have taken refuge on the slopes of Sinjar mountain.
Friday three aircraft dropped 72 bundles of emergency food and water supplies to the refugees.
In Washington on Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes met at the White House with members of the Yazidi community to discuss the situation in northern Iraq, and he said the United Sates will continue to provide humanitarian support.
Outside a church in Irbil, some of the thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing the onslaught of the Islamic State gave thanks to the U.S.
"We are happy, we are pleased with the airstrikes, and let them bring back our properties. And let our government find a proper solution for us," said Luay Janan, a Christian fleeing the violence in the region.
The first of the U.S. airstrikes hit early Friday, targeting an artillery position that had been firing on Kurdish forces protecting Irbil, a city where the U.S. has diplomats and military advisers.
Later, U.S. fighter jets taking off from the USS George HW Bush struck an Islamic State convoy and mortar position with laser-guided bombs, while a Predator drone armed with hellfire missiles took out militants at another mortar position.
How much more support Iraq gets, though, may depend on progress with a new, inclusive Iraqi government.
The Associated Press cited an Iraqi human rights ministry spokesman who said late Friday that hundreds of Yazidi women were taken captive by Islamic State militants.
Kamil Amin said the women are below the age of 35 and some are being held in schools in Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. He said the ministry learned of the captives from their families.
Islamic State extremists have brutally executed ethno-religious minorities and others who do not agree with their particular brand of Islam.
"They have threatened Christians to convert to Islam, pay taxes or be killed," said Ido Babe Sheikh, an advisor to former Iraqi President Jalal Talibani.
The group, which has captured significant amounts of military hardware the U.S. had previously supplied Iraqi forces, now controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. It has declared the area a "caliphate," and is actively recruiting other fighters to join the group.
The bombings represents the widest use of American military force in Iraq since U.S. troops pulled out in 2011, following nearly a decade of war.
Humanitarian aid to refugees
Viyan Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, welcomed U.S. efforts to help his community but stressed more needs to be done.
"This morning, 15 children died because of not having food and water. What is most urgently needed is the transfer of the Yazidi people from Shingal mountain to a better and safer location, Dakhil told VOA's Kurdish Service.
The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session late Thursday, calling on members to do all they can to support the Iraqi government and ease the suffering. The council said attacks on civilians because of their ethnic background or religion may constitute a crime against humanity.
The international community showed support for the refugees in northern Iraq.
Turkey dispatched five trucks of food, medicine, blankets and other basic goods, a senior official told Reuters.
That country, which lies on the northern borders of both Syria and Iraq, fears ISIL militants' rapid move toward Irbil, Reuters noted. But Turkish officials distanced themselves from any involvement in Friday's airstrikes, saying the U.S. air base in Turkey was not used.
Refugees arrive at Sulaimaniya province, Iraq, Aug. 8, 2014.
The British air force will drop food aid to the refugees within the next few days.
While British officials backed Obama's approval of airstrikes, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the U.K. would restrict itself to humanitarian aid and to a secondary role for the U.S. military effort.
"Our focus is on assisting that humanitarian mission," Fallon said, "and using our military in support of the Americans in terms of refueling and surveillance to underpin their mission and to add to it with food drops of our own.
"We welcome what the Americans are doing now to, in particular to bring humanitarian relief, and to prevent any further suffering," Fallon added.
Pope Francis has asked Cardinal Fernando Filoni to travel to northern Iraq and "meet with the people most affected" by the militant attacks, Catholic News Service reported Friday.
Filoni was "the only diplomat to remain in Iraq" at the start of the U.S.-led military invasion, the service reported, quoting a Vatican spokesman. The Vatican did not indicate when Filoni was expected to arrive.
Obama spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan on Friday.
They discussed the urgency of providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, the risks to the region posed by the Islamic State and other extremist groups, and the importance of supporting an inclusive Iraqi political process.
U.S. restricts flights over Iraq
Also on Friday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration restricted any nonmilitary U.S. aircraft from from flying over Iraq because of "the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict," it said in a press release.
Turkish Airlines said it had suspended service to Irbil effective immediately. Other carriers are reportedly ready to follow suit.
VOA's Kokab Farshori in Washington and Lisa Schlein in Geneva contributed to this report.
About the author: Jeff Seldin works out of VOA's Washington headquarters covering a wide variety of subjects, from the nature of the growing terror threat in Northern Africa to China's crackdown on Tibet and the struggle over immigration reform in the United States. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.
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