MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to talk now about what the United States might do about this latest crisis in Iraq. The Obama administration is considering military options, including airdrops of food and medicine to help the people we were just hearing about who fled to the mountains. The U.S. is also considering airstrikes against the fighters from the Islamic State who have cornered them there. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins me now. And Tom, first talk through these possible military options and what they might achieve.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, the immediate concern is this growing humanitarian crisis. The UN says dozens of children have died because of a lack of food and water, tens of thousands of people are out in the open here. So the Pentagon is developing options to drop humanitarian supplies - food and medicine. They're saying that the Iraqi airdrops so far have not been sufficient. And the U.S. is also drawing up plans for airstrikes. Now, there are two reasons the U.S. might have to launch airstrikes - one is for this humanitarian effort. You might have to hit the Islamic State fighters first to pave the way to drop these humanitarian supplies and then there's another possible bombing scenario - these fighters, as Alissa said, from the Islamic State are still on the move. And they're now pushing toward the city of Erbil now. And Erbil - there are dozens of U.S. soldiers there taking part in an operation center with Iraqi forces. So if it looks like these fighters are massing, on the move and threaten Americans, you could see airstrikes to kind of blunt that offensive.
BLOCK: Well, how close is the White House to making a decision on this?
BOWMAN: Very close, I'm told. The UN has said at least 40 children have died. The temperatures are around 100. There's no food or water. It's a very dire situation. And this all came up at the White House today. Press secretary Josh Earnest talked about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JOSH EARNEST: There are many problems in Iraq. This one that we're talking about right now has a particularly - is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high. We're seeing innocent populations be persecuted just because of their religious or ethnic identity. The humanitarian situation is deeply disturbing there.
BOWMAN: And Melissa, you notice he was distinguishing between this humanitarian crisis and basically everything else going on in Iraq.
BLOCK: Right because that would be the slippery slope, wouldn't it? That involvement there in the North might lead - or be expected to lead - to involvement elsewhere in Iraq.
BOWMAN: That's right and that is a concern. The Obama administration has said it does not want to be the Air Force for the Iraqi government. It's also said that there will be no U.S. combat troops in Iraq. And the press secretary said that once again today. But the risk here is that the U.S. could become more deeply involved against the Islamic State in Iraq...
BLOCK: And is...
BOWMAN: ...And basically, you know, start the war against these Islamic fighters.
BLOCK: And is that what you're hearing that they're wrestling with right now? How to strike the balance, dealing with the humanitarian crisis, steering clear of too active of a military involvement again?
BOWMAN: That's right. They're trying to do that - find that right balance - and they feel they have to of course deal with this humanitarian crisis almost immediately. And you may again see a decision on that quite soon. But until now, they wanted Iraqi forces to handle all of this. Now, the problem of course is the Iraqi forces just fell apart back in June. Remember they just dropped their weapons and ran because of poor leaders in particular against the Islamic fighters. That's when this latest series of battles really gained momentum, which is why the U.S. of course sent hundreds of assessors there to see how the Iraqi forces are doing, what kind of training they might need and equipment. So it is this balancing act. How do you deal with this immediate problem without changing your overall policy?
BLOCK: OK Tom, thanks.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
BLOCK: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. We were talking about the White House options as it weighs how to help thousands of stranded people in Iraq after gains by Islamist extremists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.