WASHINGTON — The United States bombed an Islamic State position southwest of Baghdad on Monday in what the U.S. Central Command said was the first airstrike undertaken under expanded rules of engagement President Barack Obama outlined in a speech last week.
The Central Command statement posted Monday night provided no details of the strike, but the area southwest of Baghdad is a Sunni Muslim stronghold where Islamic State forces have been active since June. The statement said the Islamic State forces were firing on Iraqi security forces.
“The airstrike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense, as outlined in the president’s speech last Wednesday,” the statement said, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
It was not clear whether the Iraqi forces had undertaken an offensive against Islamic State forces in the area or had come under attack.
Until Monday’s assault, U.S. airstrikes had been limited to protecting U.S. personnel and Iraqi infrastructure or assisting endangered Iraqi minorities. Previously, U.S. air power has been used to drop supplies to members of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, help Kurdish peshmerga militias capture the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State, break the siege of the city of Amerli where members of the Turkomen ethnic minority were trapped, and help Sunni tribesmen and Iranian-trained Shiite militias recapture a village near the Haditha Dam.
Monday’s airstrike, however, apparently was intended only to assist Iraqi government forces. It was the 162nd airstrike conducted since Obama authorized U.S. bombing missions Aug. 7, Central Command said.
In its statement, Central Command also announced that U.S. aircraft had “destroyed six ISIL vehicles near Sinjar,” the city in northern Iraq whose capture by the Islamic State Aug. 3 drove tens of thousands of Yazidis into the desolate mountains nearby. The Central Command did not say what had prompted the airstrikes at Sinjar, which apparently took place Sunday; it did not link them to the new authority from Obama, however.
The presence of Islamic State forces southwest of the capital has been a concern since June after the extremist militants captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul in the country’s north, then swept south before arriving almost at Baghdad. Military strategists worried that the Islamic State was endeavoring to encircle the capital and cut if off from Iraq’s southern provinces, where Shiite Muslims are the majority.
Pentagon officials stressed Monday, however, that the capital was not in imminent danger.
The offensive strike south of Baghdad came as Pentagon planners continue to contemplate how to strike the Islamic State within Syria, where fighters control large swaths of the country but where the United States lacks an armed ally capable of taking advantage of U.S. airstrikes. Pentagon officials have said that they have yet to receive orders to undertake offensive actions in Syria, though White House officials told reporters before the president’s speech that they expected that authorization eventually to be granted. In his speech, Obama said he would not hesitate to order such attacks, but he did not say what conditions would lead to such a command.