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Islamic State fighters defiant after U.S. airstrikes

August 8, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. warplanes struck targets in Iraq today for the first time since American troops pulled out in 2011.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Smoke rose over Irbil, as U.S. airstrikes hit fighters of the militant Islamic State group in the north.

A pair of FA-18’s like these carried out the strikes. The Pentagon said they dropped two 500-pound bombs on artillery that was shelling Kurdish forces. Later, warplanes and unmanned drone struck again, hitting a mortar and a convoy of vehicles.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America is coming to help.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama announced the military action last night, as new advances by the Islamic State forces threatened minority Christians and Yazidis. Thousands have fled in terror and are stranded on Sinjar Mountain without food or water.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.

MARGARET WARNER: He also announced airdrops of humanitarian aid. Overnight, cargo planes took in 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 prepackaged meals.

Islamic State forces are also threatening the city of Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan regional government, whose Peshmerga fighters have been routed in battles this week with the Islamic State group. Its officials welcomed U.S. action.

KHALID JAMAL ALBER, General Director, Kurdish Ministry of Religious Affairs (through interpreter): We thank Barack Obama again, due to his decision that he will give military support to Peshmerga. He also makes sure that Kurdistan is the place for religious minorities.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Kurd’s foreign minister, Mustafa Bakir, told me this afternoon their Peshmerga forces need a lot more from the U.S. in equipment and training. He said — quote — “Our weapons are not sufficient against those used by this terrorist group and the tactics they are carrying out along our long border with them.”

Islamic State fighters were defiant. One told Reuters that the airstrikes would have — quote — “no impact on us.”

Back in Washington, leaders of both parties supported the move, but some Republicans called for tougher measures.

Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement: “These actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one. A policy of containment will not work.”

It was unclear how extensive the air campaign may be, but the president vowed again last night not to send combat troops back into Iraq.

The U.S. has had 800 military personnel there since June, as advisers to Iraqis and Kurds and security for U.S. facilities. Meanwhile, the political deadlock in Baghdad persists. Today, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric issued his strongest call yet for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go.

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani spoke through a representative in Karbala.

ABDUL-MAHDI AL-KARBALAIE, Representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani (through intrepreter): Insisting on staying in government posts, despite negative effects on the country, is a terrible mistake and any politician should avoid that.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House said again today the extent of future U.S. support depends on the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will have much more on all this, including an interview with the deputy national security adviser at the White House, right after the news summary.