The barbarism of the extremist Sunni Muslim force rampaging across Iraq and Syria that calls itself the Islamic State knows no bounds. Only two choices are given to those its fighters encounter: Conversion or death. Ethnic and religious groups are targeted and hunted down for their beliefs, tolerance and mercy being alien concepts in the push for a caliphate governed by a harsh interpretation of sharia law. US President Barack Obama had every justification to order American air attacks and humanitarian food drops in the Kurdish north to protect Yazidis and other minorities from genocide.
Hundreds of Yazidis had already been killed by the Islamic State. As their villages west and north of the jihadists' stronghold of Mosul fell, they scattered to the Sinjar mountains bordering Syria, where tens of thousands have since been trapped with scant shelter and no food or water. It is a humanitarian calamity that fighters from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the nation's demoralised military were unable to cope with. The US intervention, which also extends to arming Kurdish fighters, is timely and necessary.
Obama's action is no repeat of the mistake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 against Saddam Hussein. Nor is it similar to the Nato air strikes over Libya three years ago that helped militants remove Muammar Gaddafi. Iraq's government, its soldiers no match for the battle-hardened and weapons-rich Islamic State fighters, called on the US to honour an agreement for protection should the need arise. Obama has complied, but on humanitarian, not political, grounds.
Politics is in large part the reason the Islamic State has been able to so quickly gain ground. The ethnic, religious and tribal complexities of Iraq require a deft political hand. Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's freezing out of the Sunni minority with biased policies made it easy for the militants to court and recruit the disaffected. He has been sidelined by President Fouad Massoum, who has appointed the deputy speaker of parliament, Haider al-Abadi, to form a new and inclusive government. Maliki has vowed to stay in office, but his incompetence has caused the instability.
The US has intervened for good reason, but it has to remain focused. There is no justification for straying into politics, putting American soldiers on the ground or widening involvement beyond Iraq. But Iraqi leaders have an even more important role - to build a nation that treats all people equally.