Iraqis fleeing from a militant offensive arrive in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk on Thursday. (AFP)
Arbil (Iraq), Aug. 7: Islamist militants surged across northern Iraq towards the capital of the Kurdish region today, sending tens of thousands of Christians fleeing for their lives, in an offensive that has alarmed the Baghdad government and world powers.
Reuters photographs showed Islamic State fighters controlling a checkpoint at the border area of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, little over 30 minutes’ drive from Arbil, a city of 1.5 million that is headquarters to the Kurdish regional government and of many businesses.
Sunni militants earlier captured Iraq’s biggest Christian town, Qaraqosh, prompting many residents to flee, fearing they would be subjected to the same demands the Sunni militants made in other captured areas — leave, convert to Islam or face death.
In Washington, President Obama is considering airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine to address a humanitarian crisis among as many as 40,000 religious minorities in Iraq who have been dying of heat and thirst on a mountaintop after death threats from Islamic State militants, administration officials said today.
The President, in meetings with his national security team at the White House this morning, has been weighing a series of options ranging from dropping humanitarian supplies on Sinjar mountain to military strikes on Islamist militants now at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official said.
“There could be a humanitarian catastrophe there,” a second administration official said, adding that a decision from Obama was expected “imminently — this could be a fast-moving train.”
The Islamic State, considered more extreme than al Qaida, sees Iraq’s majority Shias and minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious community, as infidels.
In Rome, Pope Francis appealed to world leaders to help end what the Vatican called “the humanitarian tragedy now under way” in northern Iraq. France called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to “counter the terrorist threat in Iraq”.
Shares in energy companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan plummeted on news of the sweeping Islamist advance towards oilfields in the region.
The militant group said in a statement on its Twitter account that its fighters had seized 15 towns, the strategic Mosul dam on the Tigris river and a military base, in an ongoing offensive that began at the weekend. Kurdish officials say their forces still control the dam, Iraq’s biggest.
Today, two witnesses said by telephone that Islamic State fighters had hoisted the group’s black flag over the dam, which could allow the militants to flood major cities or cut off significant water supplies and electricity.
The Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces in the weekend sweep, prompting tens of thousands from the ancient Yazidi community to flee the town of Sinjar for surrounding mountains.
A spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, David Swanson, said: “This is a tragedy of immense proportions, impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.”
Many of the displaced people urgently need water, food, shelter and medicine, he said. A spokesman for the UN agency for children said many of the children on the mountain were suffering from dehydration and at least 40 had died. Yazidis, seen by the Islamic State as “devil worshipers”, risk being executed by the Sunni militants.
Thousands of Iraqis, most of the Yazidis, are streaming to the border with neighbouring Turkey to flee the fighting, Turkish officials said. In Kirkuk, a strategic oil town in the north held by Kurdish forces.