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Obama Launches Airstrikes in Iraq, Delivers Aid

After telling a national audience Thursday night that he authorized bombing in Iraq, on Friday President Barack Obama gave the green-light to airstrikes. 

On Thursday the United States began dropping food aid to stranded religious minorities in northern Iraq and authorized the military to bomb the Islamic State if it threatens U.S. advisors working in and around Erbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.

The airstrikes are the first American offensive since U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011.

"I've directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward [Erbil], including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad," Obama said at a White House press conference Thursday night.

As many as 40,000 Yazidi refugees are trapped in the Sinjar mountains and they are slowly running out of food and water.

Defense officials said the humanitarian mission was conducted from a number of air bases within the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" and included one C-17 jet and two C-130 cargo jets. The two dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The cargo jets were accompanied by two F/A-18s and the mission did not require U.S. ground troops, according to the Pentagon. 

The C-17 jet dropped 40 "bundles" of fresh drinking water and a C-130 dropped 16 additional bundles totaling 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water. Another C-130 dropped 16 bundles more, totaling 8,000 meals ready-to-eat, or MREs. The airplanes spent about 15 minutes over the area, at a low altitude, according to a point paper distributed by defense officials Thursday night.

Residents of Iraq's largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, which is home to some 50,000 followers, fled as the Sunni militants advanced toward Erbil, targeting Iraq's religious minorities along the way.

"ISIL has called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," Obama said. "When we have the unique ability to prevent a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye."

The militants also captured Iraq's largest dam. U.N. officials estimate that there are as many as 200,000 new refugees seeking safety in Iraq's Kurdish north.

The Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar, the Yazidis' ancestral home some 75 miles west of Mosul, on Sunday as part of this wider offensive, causing the city's inhabitants to flee into the mountains. Unlike Christians, who are often given the choice of converting or paying a tax to save their lives, the Islamic State has killed the Yazidis by the hundreds, sometimes taking them as slaves. "We believe that what they have done may be classified as genocide and a crime against humanity," said Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative in Iraq of the U.N. secretary general, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor. "They are being treated as a group to be eliminated from the face of the earth."

The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks after gathering for an emergency session on Thursday. "The members of the Security Council call on the international community to support the government and people of Iraq and to do all it can to help alleviate the suffering of the population affected by the current conflict in Iraq," said Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's U.N. ambassador and current Security Council president. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he is "deeply appalled" by the attacks.

Despite the promises of assistance, Obama ended his remarks Thursday evening by noting that in the long term, Iraq's people will have to sort out the unstable political situation themselves.

"There is no American military solution to the larger problem in Iraq," Obama said.

Earlier in the day there had been conflicting reports of whether there had been airstrikes, and if so, by whom. Accounts that Turkish fighter jets entered Iraq's airspace were denied by the Turkish government, and Turkish media later reported that the Turks, using Iraqi government helicopters, did deliver goods to the Yazidi refugees.

The Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., Ali al-Hakim, said that the Iraqi jets had "yet" to strike Islamic State fighters. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered his air force to support the Kurdish army earlier this week, ahead of the coming Islamic State advance.

This post has been updated.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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Netanyahu: We're 'Cooperating' With the Palestinian Authority

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel's conduct in the Palestinian conflict -- and his vision for Gaza. For most of the speech delivered in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, he hit his government's usual talking points: The Israeli operation was "justified and proportional"; the relationship with the United States was much better than has been reported; and Hamas must be disarmed and Gaza demilitarized.

On one issue, however, Netanyahu's position has shifted dramatically since before violence broke out on July 8. The Palestinian Authority (PA), he noted, has a place in rebuilding Gaza and controlling the territory's borders. "We're cooperating with them and are prepared to see a role for them," Netanyahu said.

This is the same PA whose unity government was approved by Fatah and Hamas -- and which Netanyahu urged the world not to recognize because doing so would "strengthen terrorism." On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister did not reiterate his demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolve the government.

Perhaps Netanyahu sees the PA as a vehicle for empowering Hamas's rivals in the Gaza Strip. The PA is almost entirely controlled by Fatah: Abbas is its most important figure and its bureaucracy comprises mainly technocrats who are almost exclusively close to Fatah. An agreement giving PA security forces responsibility for guarding the Rafah border crossing with Egypt appears set. The Wall Street Journal reported a U.S., Israeli, and Arab effort "to place the Palestinian Authority ... at the heart of efforts to disarm Hamas and open Gaza to economic development." 

These plans are as risky as they are beneficial for Fatah. Party officials don't want Palestinians to see them as returning to Gaza on the back of an Israeli Merkava tank, metaphorically speaking.

"They are damn liars," said Abdullah Abdullah, deputy commissioner of Fatah's International Relations Commission, when asked about Israeli officials' suggestions that the PA could fill the vacuum left by a defeated Hamas. "No, we're not quislings. Israel is against Palestine, against Palestinian rights. Don't believe their lies."

Abdullah's angry reaction was par for the course -- it would be political suicide for the party to be seen as siding with the Israelis in such a way. However, Fatah officials see themselves as members of a ruling party with a responsibility to govern -- not only in the West Bank but also in the Gaza Strip. 

The dilemma is the very heart of the party's split identity; it's "schizophrenia," as Husam Zumlot, a senior foreign affairs advisor for Fatah, put it. On one hand, Fatah was a liberation movement; on the other, a ruling party that must provide for an occupied people. Fatah organized mass demonstrations and pressed for Israel's condemnation at the United Nations. It also tried offering basic services, such as education, health programs, and a support for a functioning economy, Zumlot said. 

By contrast, Hamas only cares about revolution, he said. "When they tried to have the governance side in Gaza, they failed miserably." 

Fatah may also find itself under pressure from two of its most important patrons, the United States and Egypt, who would be keen to bolster the PA in Gaza. Add a dash of competition between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian national movement, a healthy dose of mistrust, and it's not hard to see the recipe for more conflict. The Israeli military campaign may have just been the first battle in a much longer struggle for control of Gaza.   

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images