WASHINGTON (USA Today) — President Obama is considering options to assist trapped minorities in Iraq, including possible airstrikes, a government official said.
Obama has already authorized airdrops of food, water and medicine, the official said.
The administration has been mulling options for weeks, but the issue has come to a head with a mounting humanitarian catastrophe in northern Iraq where the Yazidis, a small religious minority, are trapped on a mountain top surrounded by Islamic militants.
The source asked not to be named since he was not authorized to speak about the issue. No final decision about airstrikes has been made.
The administration is also worried that the militants, which have had one success after another, may now pose a threat to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, according to a senior U.S. official. Erbil is home to a U.S. consulate and a joint U.S.-Iraqi security.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said the administration is working with Iraqi and Kurdish officials on efforts to address a looming "human catastrophe," but he did not provide specifics.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported, citing Kurdish sources, that airstrikes had already started. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, quickly denied those reports.
"Press reports that US has conducted airstrikes in Iraq completely false. No such action taken," Kirby said in a statement on Twitter.
The Yazidis are a tiny religious group that were forced to flee their homes when militants attacked Sinjar in northern Iraq. The militants consider the Yazidis as apostates.
Tens of thousands of refugees fled into the mountains, perhaps hoping to reach the Kurdish region in the north, but were trapped because of militant activity between the mountain and the Kurdish area, and are running short on food and water.
Iraqi aircraft have attempted to air drop supplies to the Yazidis but with limited success. Dropping supplies, particularly on a mountain top, is difficult as packages of food and water break open on impact.
The U.S. Air Force has extensive experience with air dropping supplies, which they regularly do in the mountains of Afghanistan with accuracy.
Air strikes could be used to blunt the battlefield successes of the militants, which now control about one-third of Iraq's territory.
The militants, who belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have had a string of recent successes in the north, placing pressure on the White House to act.
On Thursday militants attacked a string of Christian villages, worsening an already desperate humanitarian crisis and dealing a blow to the Kurdish forces defending the region.
Reports from the region also indicated that the militants may have seized Mosul dam, a massive hydroelectric structure that would give the rebels control of resources and the ability to flood a wide swath of territory.
The Associated Press said the reports were based on residents who live near the dam who asked not to be named.
The developments this week were particularly worrying because the militants dealt a blow to the Kurdish forces, called the peshmerga, which have a reputation of being disciplined and well trained forces. The peshmerga were defending Sanjir and the Christian villages that were overrun by militants.
The militants have been pressing the pershmerga all along the border of the Kurdish region, making it hard for the Kurdish forces to concentrate their forces in order to effectively defend towns or to counterattack, said Jessica Lewis, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
The strategy appears to have worked for the militants. "This tells us ISIS ... is a formidable force," Lewis said, referring to the militants.