White House officials said reports of the dire and deteriorating situation of Iraqi Christians and Kurds, along with the gains made by militants in the past week, triggered President Barack Obama's decision to authorize airstrikes and other military action in Iraq.
It was a combination of factors that finally brought President Obama to authorize U.S. warplanes to strike Islamic State militants and cargo planes to drop food and water to help thousands of desperate refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the urgent reports the president saw this week about the dire and deteriorating situation were the No. 1 reason.
"Those reports were deeply disturbing and certainly influenced the president's decision to take military action in support of the humanitarian mission there."
Militants with the Islamic State have been sweeping across northern Iraq, terrorizing Christians and Kurdish members of the ancient Yazidi sect, thousands of whom are taking refuge on the mountain where they have been without food or water for days.
Earnest says the second reason is the intelligence the president has been receiving about the militants' advances toward the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, where the United States has a consulate and a number of military advisors.
“That also led to the president's conclusion that a more robust military action could be required to ensure the safety and security of those American officials in Irbil,” he said.
U.S. officials said the president decided to act in order to help the Iraqi leadership after seeing what he views as positive signs it is moving toward setting up a more inclusive government.
Officials suggest more strikes are to be expected, saying there is no end date on the president's authorization for military action. Earnest said President Obama will leave the targeting decisions to U.S. military officials.
“He will not be in a situation where he is signing off on individual strikes, but there will be regular consultation from the president's military commanders to their commander-in-chief about the situation on the ground and about the strategy that they're pursuing."
Although he has set no end date for the airstrikes, the president has emphasized the United States will not be dragged back into a prolonged military conflict in Iraq and has repeatedly said he will not send American combat troops back into that country.
The latest U.S. strikes and humanitarian drops were at the invitation of Iraq's government, and the president has said the U.S. expects the Iraqis to resolve the crisis themselves.