WASHINGTON — On Wednesday evening, moments after finishing a summit meeting with African leaders at the State Department, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered a stark message to President Obama as they rode back to the White House in Mr. Obama’s limousine.
The Kurdish capital, Erbil, once an island of pro-American tranquillity, was in the path of rampaging Sunni militants, the chairman, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, told the president. And to the west, the militants had trapped thousands of members of Iraqi minority groups on a barren mountaintop, with dwindling supplies, raising concerns about a potential genocide.
With American diplomats and business people in Erbil suddenly at risk, at the American Consulate and elsewhere, Mr. Obama began a series of intensive deliberations that resulted, only a day later, in his authorizing airstrikes on the militants, as well as humanitarian airdrops of food and water to the besieged Iraqis.
Looming over that discussion, and the decision to return the United States to a war Mr. Obama had built his political career disparaging, was the specter of an earlier tragedy: the September 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and has become a potent symbol of weakness for critics of the president.
President Obama spoke about actions taken by his administration in Iraq, including airdrops of humanitarian supplies and the authorization of airstrikes against ISIS forces.
Video Credit By whitehouse.gov on Publish Date August 7, 2014. Image CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
As the tension mounted in Washington, a parallel drama was playing out in Erbil. Kurdish forces who had been fighting the militants in three nearby Christian villages abruptly fell back toward the gates of the city, fanning fears that the city might soon fall. By Thursday morning, people were thronging the airport, desperate for flights out of town.
“The situation near Erbil was becoming more dire than anyone expected,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the White House’s internal deliberations. “We didn’t want another Benghazi.”
For weeks, intelligence officials had been watching the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, gain in strength, replenishing its arsenals with weapons captured both in Syria and in Iraq. But interviews with multiple officials at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies paint a portrait of a president forced by the unexpectedly rapid deterioration of security in Iraq to abandon his longstanding reluctance to use military force.
Mr. Obama, in a speech late Thursday announcing his decision, insisted this was not a return to war — that Iraq’s fate still ultimately rested in the hands of its three main groups, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But he made clear that he would take action to protect Americans in Erbil and Baghdad.
“We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on Friday with Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times. “Part of the rationale for the announcement yesterday was an encroachment close enough to Erbil that it would justify us taking shots.”
Still, his decision to order F-18 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush to carry out bombing raids on militants dramatically raises the risks for Mr. Obama. Unlike other times when he has made the decision to commit American forces — the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan, for example — Mr. Obama acted within hours.
With nearly 50 African leaders converging on Washington, the president was fully occupied with a week of diplomacy and salesmanship on behalf of American companies — not to mention a White House dinner featuring entertainment by Lionel Richie. On Saturday, he and his wife, Michelle, were to leave town for two weeks of vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
While Mr. Obama discussed security and governance with the leaders, his national security aides were huddling in the Situation Room, getting increasingly dire briefings from embassy officials in Baghdad and the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees Iraq.
“Things reached a tipping point on Wednesday,” said a senior official. “We saw that on the mountain, the Iraqis were not able to resupply and provide food and water.”
Back at the White House that evening, Mr. Obama and General Dempsey continued talking in the Oval Office, joined by the chief of staff, Denis McDonough; the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice; and other officials. The discussion moved toward military action, one official said, though Mr. Obama had not yet decided on anything, beyond airdrops.
About 8 p.m., the meeting broke up and Mr. Obama again left the White House, an hour late, for a dinner date with his wife and a close confidante, Valerie Jarrett, at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown.
Six thousand miles away, in Erbil, Thursday morning broke with news that two towns just 27 miles west of the Kurdish capital, Mahmour and Gwer, had fallen to the militants, and that Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, had withdrawn. “That was a real problem,” said a former Kurdish official who closely tracks security issues.
In villages and small towns outside the city, even places well north of Erbil and farther from the militant forces, people were frantically piling into cars to flee. The pesh merga were helping to evacuate hundreds of people in large flatbed trucks. When people heard a gunshot, rumors would spread of an ISIS advance.
Americans officials on the ground said they feared that if Erbil emptied, the city would be vulnerable to a militant attack. And if it fell, they feared, not only would Americans be at risk, but it would be a second seismic event for the region — after the June 10 fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city — with dangerous consequences for Turkey and a potential for enormous loss of life in Kurdistan.
A look at who the pesh merga are, their history as Iraq’s most formidable force, and why President Obama has now authorized airstrikes against ISIS to support them.
As if that were not enough, the militants had seized a critical dam in Mosul, which controls water levels on the Tigris River as far south as Baghdad. The capture of the dam shook Kurdish officials and fueled the sense of crisis during Thursday’s meetings, with officials worried that the militants could either blow it up or use it to cut off water supplies or as a bargaining chip in negotiating anything they wanted.
“That was one of the trip wires we looked at,” said another senior official. “We look at that dam as a potential threat to our embassy in Baghdad.”
At a 90-minute meeting in the Situation Room on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama was briefed again about the plight of the Iraqis stranded on Mount Sinjar. Members of an ancient religious sect known as Yazidi, they were branded as devil worshipers by the militants. The women were to be enslaved; the men were to be slaughtered.
Officials told Mr. Obama there was a real danger of genocide, under the legal definition of the term. “While we have faced difficult humanitarian challenges, this was in a different category,” said an official. “That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”
At 11:20 a.m., Mr. Obama left the meeting to travel to Fort Belvoir, Va., where he signed a bill expanding health care for veterans. He had all but made up his mind to authorize airstrikes, officials said, and while he was away, his team drafted specific military options.
When the president returned to the White House barely an hour later, he went back into meetings with his staff. By then, there were news reports of airdrops and possible strikes. But the White House “hunkered down,” an official said, refusing to comment on the reports for fear of endangering a nighttime airdrop over Mount Sinjar.
Mr. Obama did not announce the operations until dawn had broken in Iraq, a delay of several hours that added to the panic in Erbil. Reports of explosions near the city at dusk on Thursday night sowed confusion after Kurdish officials said the United States had begun airstrikes on the militants. The Pentagon flatly denied the reports.
American officials said the United States was closely coordinating with the Iraqi Air Force, which has been carrying out its own strikes on the militants, though officials did not confirm that the explosions reported on Thursday evening were from Iraqi raids. On Friday, an administration official said there had been no airstrikes the previous evening.
Struggling to stanch the fear, keep the fighters at their posts and slow the exodus out of the city, Kurdish officials put out a series of brave-sounding but misleading statements.
The Kurdish prime minister, Necherven Barrzani, sent a letter to Kurdish citizens, posted on a government website, saying: “The pesh merga are going ahead and terrorists are being beaten. Don’t be skeptical.”
Also writing a letter to the Kurdish people was Kosrat Rassoul, deputy to President Massoud Barzani, who said: “There are rumors among the people, which make citizens feel skeptical. Here I want to reassure everyone we in Erbil are ready in the best way to defend the Kurdish territory.”
What they did not say was that the pesh merga were demoralized, uncertain, underequipped and facing a formidable foe along several hundred miles of border between the Kurdistan region and Iraq’s Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces, where the militants are now the dominant force.
Several fighters who had fought ISIS said they were daunted when they discovered the militants were traveling in bulletproof vehicles that left the pesh merga’s bullets doing little more than pockmarking the metal.
“It’s our business to see the faces of the soldiers and know how they feel,” said Halgurd Hekmat, the head of media for the pesh merga fighters. “I wouldn’t say they were afraid, but they were a bit nervous,” he admitted. Since the fall of Mosul, the pesh merga leadership had warned the Americans and the Iraqi government that they were ill equipped to hold the militants at the border separating Nineveh Province from Kurdistan.
“We told them: ‘We cannot hold it for very long. We are not a country; we don’t have an army; we don’t have aircraft,’ ” said Lt. Gen. Jaber Yawer Manda, the secretary general of the pesh merga ministry. “I said: ‘We are fighting in the front lines now. You have to help us.’ ”
On Thursday evening, after a long day in the West Wing, Mr. Obama had a message for Iraqis: “Today, America is coming to help.”