KHAZER CAMP, Iraq - President Barack Obama justified the U.S. military's return to fighting in Iraq Saturday by saying America must act now to prevent genocide, protect its diplomats and provide humanitarian aid to refugees trapped by Islamic State militants on a mountain ridge near the Syrian border.
"This is going to be a long-term project" that won't end and can't succeed unless Iraqis form an inclusive government in Baghdad capable of keeping the country from breaking apart, Obama said at the White House.
U.S. planes and drones launched four airstrikes on Islamic State forces Saturday as they fired indiscriminately on Yazidi civilians taking shelter in the Sinjar mountains, U.S. Central Command said. The strikes, which were spread out during the day, destroyed armored carriers and a truck, according to the Central Command statement. It was the third round of airstrikes against Islamic State forces by the U.S. military since they were authorized by Obama on Thursday.
The military support also has been helping clear the way for aid flights to drop food and water to thousands of starving refugees in the Sinjar area.
But the help comes too late for many of the religious minorities targeted for elimination by the Islamic State group, which swept past U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi government forces in recent weeks and now controls much of Iraq.
A delayed response by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad left Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Sunni extremists' advances. With nowhere to go but uphill, Kurdish-speaking Yazidi refugees sought shelter in the mile-high Sinjar mountains, where their ancient religion holds that Noah's ark came to rest.
U.S., Iraqi and British cargo planes dropped tons of food, water, tents and other equipment to the refugees Friday and Saturday. Iraq's defense ministry released a video showing people in the Sinjar mountains rushing to collect food and water as the Iraqi government's fleet of C130 cargo planes dropped 20 tons of aid at a time.
But at least 56 children have died of dehydration in the mountains, UNICEF's spokesman in Iraq, Karim Elkorany, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
British officials estimated Saturday between 50,000 and 150,000 people could be trapped on the mountain.
And Juan Mohammed, a local government spokesman in the Syrian city of Qamishli, told the AP that more than 20,000 starving Yazidis are fleeing across the border, braving gunfire through a tenuous "safe passage" that Kurdish peshmerga forces are trying to protect.
With shocked, sunburnt faces, men, women and children in dirt-caked clothes limped to a camp for displaced Iraqis on Saturday, finding safety after harsh days of hiding on a blazing mountaintop, fleeing the Islamic State extremists.
Children who died of thirst were left behind; some exhausted mothers abandoned living babies, as thousands of Yazidis trekked across a rocky mountain chain in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, crossing into neighboring Syria, and then looping back into Iraq to reach safety at the Bajid Kandala camp.
Other Yazidis have settled in refugee camps in Syria: so awful is their situation, they have sought safety in a country aflame in a civil war.
The U.S. military officially withdrew its combat forces in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. It returned to battle Friday when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on Islamic State fighters advancing on the Kurdish capital of Irbil as violence sent the number of displaced Iraqis soaring.
Gen. Ahmed, the peshmerga spokesman at the Khazer checkpoint on the frontline outside Irbil, said it was a "good hit," but the impact wasn't yet clear. The Kurdish general spoke on condition his last name not be used.
Obama was adamant Saturday that U.S. troops can't bring peace to Iraq.
"We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there's not going to be an American military solution to this problem. There's going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support," he said.
The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.
Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited until Monday to call in aerial reinforcements for Kurdish fighters trying to contain the Islamic State's advance. It was his government's first show of cooperation with the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government since Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, fell to the extremists in June.
And so Kurdish officials were particularly pleased by the return of U.S. air support as well as the military trainers coordinating tactical responses with Kurdish peshmerga forces in Irbil.