Airstrikes loom over Islamic State extremists in Iraq: Why now?

(CNN) – The rampage of religious violence that Sunni Islamist extremists have wrought in Iraq had the U.S. administration talking of “genocide” on Thursday.

President Obama used the term when he announced he has authorized targeted airstrikes against the extremists, after fighters for Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, drove ethnic Yazidi families up a mountain, where they hungered and some of their children died of thirst in the scorching summer sun.

“I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said on Friday. “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

Dozens of U.S. advisers are already in Iraq trying to galvanize its fractured government and loosely bonded military to vanquish Islamic State itself.

Photos: The USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group on deployment

And now, they and other U.S. personnel potentially face danger, too, as Islamic State militants battle with Kurdish troops in Iraq’s north, where the United States has established much of its interests.

The administration has adamantly reassured Americans that it won’t put U.S. boots on the ground, but it seems to have compelling reasons for airstrikes soon against Islamic State.

Here are a few:

1. Stop the humanitarian crisis: Buzzword ‘genocide’

“Convert to Islam or die” is the ultimatum Islamic State militants gave to Christians when they overran that ethnic group’s largest city, Qaraqosh.

To back up the threat directed to anyone with religious convictions other than their own, Islamic State is beheading some victims and “putting people’s heads on spikes” to terrorize others, a senior administration official said. The extremists have also uploaded execution videos to the Internet.

Islamic State’s sweep of carnage has displaced hundreds of thousands especially from Iraq’s second largest city Mosul. And now thousands of Yazidi families are stranded in mountains with the jaws of their tormentors the only place for them to go.

Two U.S. military cargo planes airdropped water and meals on Thursday to ease their hunger and thirst.

From fighting Hitler to Pol Pot, the American public has often rallied behind the cry to stop genocide, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry picked up the word in his statement praising the approval of airstrikes against Islamic State as well.

“Its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” he said.

2. Protect U.S. interests: Its own people, a key ally

The United States has two important interests of its own in Iraq. The President summed them up in his address late Thursday to justify authorizing airstrikes.

“We do whatever is necessary to protect our people,” Obama said. “We support our allies when they’re in danger.”

There are 245 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, 90 of whom are advisers. Dozens of them are in Irbil, the largest city of the Kurdish region, which has been one of the most stable regions in Iraq and a cooperative U.S. partner.

U.S. consular staff are there with them.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have fought Islamic State and have so far said they could hold off an onslaught on Irbil, but the militants have proven swift, professional and full of surprises, a senior administration official said.

After the deadly attacks on U.S. interests in Benghazi, Libya, the administration would be wise to prevent a repeat in Iraq. It may be time to back up the Peshmerga from the air.

That’s what Kurdish officials have been begging for.

Analysts also fear that U.S. and European citizens who have joined Islamic State could return to produce homegrown terrorism. The shooter at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, in May was a member.

3. Hit Islamic State: The United States would finally get a shot at the extremists

The administration would not name this as an objective. And that has irked hawkish critics in Washington who are applying pressure on it to do more.

After Obama’s airstrike authorization on Thursday, two verbal Republican Senators blasted the President in a reaction statement for not going further already.

“Degrade ISIS (Islamic State),” was the dictum from Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped.”

They suggest a take-it-to-them formula: Arm all partners who fight Islamic State, including in Syria; bomb their leaders, troops and positions, including in Syria.

The Obama administration has pushed for Iraqis to form a new government that no longer disadvantages Iraq’s Sunni Muslims like it does under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Many disaffected Sunni Muslim have joined Islamic State.

Then the White House wants Iraqis forces to handle the threat themselves.

But a senior administration official stressed that Islamic State’s military proficiency requires a “level of military sophistication in our response.”

When asked why the United States was not evacuating U.S. personnel, a senior administration official said the U.S. has the wherewithal to protect them and prefers instead to “lay down a marker” before Islamic State.

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