NEW DELHI (AP) - The U.S. launched its first airstrikes into Iraq Friday as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned the U.S. military has enough intelligence to clearly single out and hit Islamic militants if they threaten U.S. interests or the thousands of refugees who fled to a mountaintop.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said two F/A-18 fighters flying off the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush in the Persian Gulf dropped two laser-guided 500-pound bombs on an Islamic State artillery piece and the truck towing it.
He said it wasn't clear how many militants may have been hit or killed in the strike. The militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil, the Pentagon said.
In contrast to Washington's decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against the Islamic State group were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants' lightning advance across the country.
"We thank Barack Obama," said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the Religious Affairs Ministry in the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and the Displaced also welcomed the aid drops. Ministry spokesman Satar Nawrouz said the drops came "just in time."
Speaking to reporters traveling with him in India, Hagel also said that more than 60 of 72 bundles of food and water airdropped onto the mountain reached the Iraqi religious minorities stranded there.
A day after President Barack Obama authorized the airstrikes and humanitarian aid in northern Iraq, the military said it has the assets and resources in place to launch strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft based in the region.
Asked if the Islamic State group could successfully hide among civilians to evade strikes, Hagel said if the Islamic State moves against Irbil, Baghdad or the refugees on the mountain, "it's pretty clear who they are, and they would be pretty identifiable where our airstrikes could be effective."
According to a U.S. official, the military will use F-16 and F/A 18 fighter jets based in the region for strikes, and cargo aircraft based in Kuwait, for any additional humanitarian aid drops.
In addition, the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush - which carries F/A-18s - is in the Persian Gulf, and Apache helicopters are based in Baghdad.
Kirby said Friday that Gen. Lloyd Austin, who heads U.S. Central Command, has the authority and the assets he needs to order strike any moment.
Hagel also said that so far the Iraqis have not requested additional humanitarian aid.
But he said top U.S. leaders will meet later Friday to assess the situation. He said he has pulled out of an official dinner here to attend the meeting by video-conference.