Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect take refuge after fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar. Reuters
The U.S. military will drop emergency aid into Iraq on Thursday night to aid members of the Yazidi religious minority besieged on a northern mountainside by Sunni extremists, according to U.S. officials who said Washington is also considering airstrikes.
The Sunni militant group Islamic State is also imperiling other parts of northern Iraq in a rapid new advance that is also threatening the long-stable city of Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish regional government.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled an advance by the insurgents into the country's Christian heartland in the north. It appears to be a strategic push by Islamic State toward the semiautonomous Kurdish region, so far insulated from the militant takeover of parts of Iraq and a haven for displaced from all over the country.
The march on the Christian area and the crisis involving the Yazidis are both in the same northern province, Nineveh. Islamic State has also taken over the Mosul Dam, the country's largest, according to a local resident.
On Sunday, the militants took over Sinjar, a Kurdish-controlled town with a large population of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group that follow a pre-Islamic religion.
U.N. groups have estimated as many as 40,000 Yazidis have fled to the mountains without food or water and are trapped there, with all access roads out controlled by Islamic State. The United Nations Children's Fund cited reports that say as many as 40 refugee children have died.
The advancing militants killed some of the Yazidis who remained in the area know as the Sinjar plains, according to locals who fled and U.S. officials.
"They are unable to access food and water," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "They don't have any access to shelter. They have fled persecution, and efforts to leave the mountain are blocked by ISIL (Islamic State) forces who are threatening to kill them. This is a terrible humanitarian situation."
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting on Thursday about the crisis in Iraq.
The stranded Yazidis are the last surviving community in their ancestral homeland of the Yazidis, long misunderstood by the outside world as "devil-worshippers." The assault on the community is part of a pattern by extremists of stamping out non-Islamic religious observation.
An Iraqi retrieves items from a destroyed shop the morning after a string of car bombs tore through busy shopping streets in several neighborhoods in Baghdad, Iraq. Associated Press
Iraqi officials and aid workers say at least one airdrop over the Sinjar mountains coordinated by Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government provided drinkable water. But officials said the attempt reached only a small number of the tens of thousands of displaced.
The U.S. plans were being discussed Thursday at high-level meetings at the White House that also involved the U.S. military leadership, the officials said.
There are dozens of U.S. troops now in Erbil, part of the force of planners and advisers working in joint U.S.-Iraqi centers.
The airdrops represent a major escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq, which has been under siege this year by Islamic State, known in the West as ISIS or ISIL, which has been seizing town after town and terrorizing Shiite and Christian populations.
Washington has held off on any direct military involvement or assistance to Iraq as the Obama administration pressures Iraqi lawmakers to form a new, more inclusive government.
U.S. intelligence reports on the fate of the Yazidis closely mirror dire media reports, officials said. Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi in the Iraqi parliament, said this week 70 children had died and Islamic State had killed more than 500 men. She accused Islamic State of genocide against the Yazidi populations.
"There is a collective attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people," she said.
U.S. officials said they have received a formal request for assistance—but didn't say if it was from the Kurdish regional authorities or the central government in Iraq. As part of the effort to send military advisers to Iraq, the U.S. has set up coordination centers in both Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital.
The Islamic State advance into Iraq's Christian heartland in the north sent families packing into cars or fleeing on foot as the militants pushed their offensive closer to the Kurdish region.
The insurgents took over a string of towns over the past two days—two of them after the Kurdish regional forces guarding them, the Peshmerga, withdrew, local officials and residents said.
A local resident said they captured the dam at Mosul, Iraq's largest and a key source of electricity. If the Islamic State seizes Mosul dam, it would give them leverage over Baghdad—if the facility is damaged or destroyed, it could flood entire cities, even Baghdad, some 300 miles away. The dam provides electricity to and controls the water supply in Mosul and the surrounding area.
The Islamic State entered Tal Keif, some 10 miles north of Mosul in Nineveh province, late Wednesday, the town's mayor said. They took over Qara Qosh, east of Mosul on Thursday morning, a security official said. Some 50,000 Christians have fled Qara Qosh.
Two other towns in the area, Bartella and Karmalees, also fell under Islamic State control overnight, said Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniya. He and local officials said the latest advance has nearly purged northwestern Iraq of its Christian population.
"Those towns are now devoid of their original inhabitants. The displaced people are roaming the roads and riding whatever vehicle they can to get out," the archbishop said.
Tal Keif Mayor Bassem Bello said people also fled his town by foot, as cars jammed the road to make the hourlong drive to the province of Dohuk—part of the country's Kurdish region—overnight.
"The Nineveh plain yesterday was emptied of its people," Mr. Bello said by telephone. "There is not a Christian town left standing." Mr. Bello said the majority of Tel Keif's 30,000 residents fled; if anyone was left behind, he warned they were in great danger from the Sunni extremists on a campaign to seize territory and drive out Iraq's religious and ethnic minorities.
Iraqi Christians are thought to make up little more than 5% of the population of some 23 million people. Once one of the more vibrant Christian populations in the Middle East, 10 years of war and the rise of Islamic extremism already induced much of the country's Christian minority to emigrate.
Those remaining have fled the latest Islamist threat in the hundreds of thousands, seeking safety in other northern villages or the eastern Kurdish regions. Some families have been on the run more than once.
After the Islamic State seized Sinjar on Sunday, thousands of its residents took safety in a town called Sharia in Dohuk province, said a humanitarian aid worker there. On Thursday, Peshmerga fighters remained in control of Sharia. But some residents were so frightened of the Islamic State attacks on nearby towns that they also fled farther north.
The Iraqi media reported that fighters from the group had taken two Kurdish towns even closer to Erbil, Makhmour and Gwar, but those reports couldn't be immediately confirmed.
The Islamic State—a spinoff of al Qaeda that was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS—pressed forward an offensive in northern Iraq after seizing the city of Mosul on June 10. The group, emboldened in Iraq after seizing parts of northern and eastern Syria, aims to carve out an Islamic state across borders of neighboring Middle Eastern nations.
For residents of the city of Erbil, the flood of people into the Kurdish region and fears of the insurgents' advance over the past few days has stirred widespread panic.
People stocked up on essentials at supermarkets and tried to book flights out of the area, but many were already overbooked, residents said. Security tightened as many more road checkpoints were put up. One resident said an appeal for Kurds to volunteer with the Peshmerga boomed out through a mosque speaker on Wednesday.
The Peshmerga's withdrawal from Tal Keif and Qara Qosh mystified local officials.
"There was no attack on Tal Keif at first, there was a Peshmerga withdrawal," said Mr. Bello, the town's mayor. "It was very surprising to us." A Peshmerga spokesman didn't immediately return calls for comment.
Boutros Sargon, a resident who said he fled Tal Keif after the Islamic State moved in, said the town "fell into their hands without resistance." He said he heard sounds of gunfire coming from the direction of the town's entrance around midnight, and stepped out to find insurgents riding armored vehicles yelling "Allahu akbar," or "God is Great."
The Peshmerga have a fearsome reputation and are well-trained, but not well equipped.
"People are fleeing because there's no trust that the Peshmerga can protect them," said Yonadam Kanna, a parliamentarian and the leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, one of the strongest Christian parties in Iraq. "This is not an equivalent fight between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State.
"The Islamic State has much bigger and more powerful weapons than the Peshmerga do. These people want to die and have lunch with the Prophet Muhammad. The Peshmerga want to live and go home to have dinner with their wives. They won't play as dirty as the Islamic State does in war."