Obama said the Iraqi government asked for U.S. help in fighting Islamic State militants, who have surged across northern Iraq in the country's Kurdish region, forcing tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis — a Kurdish ethno-religious community — to leave their homes or risk death.
Many have fled into the mountains near the town of Sinjar, where Obama said they are trapped without food and water and are facing "genocide."
"America is coming to help," Obama said during a news conference in the White House dining room.
Speaking after meetings with his national security team, Obama — in his most significant response to the Iraq crisis — U.S. air power could also be used to protect American personnel if the militants advance toward the Kurdish capital Arbil, where they are based.
The airstrikes would be the first carried out by the U.S. military in Iraq since the withdrawal of its forces at the end of 2011, but Obama insisted he would not commit any ground forces and had no intention of letting the United States get dragged back into a war there.