UPDATE: Pentagon officials denied reports that US forces had bombed at least two Islamic State targets in northern Iraq on Thursday evening. White House officials said earlier today that the president was considering different options in Iraq, including possible airstrikes and airdrops.
While you probably weren’t paying attention, things in Iraq got really, really bad.
In the latest offensive launched over the weekend, Islamic State militants have extended their grip on the northern part of the collapsing country even further, taking over more towns — 15, by their own account — and even Iraq’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh.
On Thursday, the Sunni militants also took over Mosul’s dam — Iraq’s biggest — reportedly hoisting the black flag of the caliphate over it. By controlling the dam, which powers the country’s second largest city, Islamic State fighters could flood entire towns and cut off water and electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, Reuters reported.
Some 300,000 Iraqis have been displaced since the militants set to established their caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June — many of them fleeing into Iraqi Kurdistan, which was already home to more than 220,000 refugees of the Syrian war, according to UN figures.
At least 45,000 more Iraqis — mainly Christians and members of the Yazidis, Shabak, and Shia Turkmen minorities — have arrived there since the weekend offensive started, according to Iraqi Kurdish authorities.
But the Islamic State’s militants are getting pretty close to the autonomous region as well — making its status as a safe haven very fragile.
The video below, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlights the struggles of hundreds of thousands of displaced minorities, including tens of thousands of Yazidis who fled the town of Sinjar for the mountains, where many currently remained stranded without water and food. At least 40 children have already died, according to the UN.
Today in Erbil, the region’s capital, Iraqi Kurdish officials met with foreign diplomats and pleaded for humanitarian and military help — and particularly air support — from the international community.
“We are dealing with a terrorist organization with members across the world, and it is a threat to all. Fighting ISIS is not only the responsibility of the Kurdistan region,” Falah Mustafa, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Foreign Minister, said. “Terrorism is an international threat, and therefore the international community has a responsibility to support the KRG as it combats ISIS.”
The video below, shared by a local news outlet, shows the Kurdish forces' counteroffensive to the Islamic State's advances.
Kurdish Peshmerga troops have been struggling to push back against the Islamic State offensive, despite support from Baghdad’s central government, which sent the country’s air force to the north in an attempt to contain the militants’ rapid advance.
On Thursday, at least 60 people were killed in an aerial strike on a Mosul building under the militants’ control, Iraqi authorities said. But local officials countered that the building was actually used by militants as a prison for its opponents and violators of Islamic law — and that most of the victims of the strike were civilians.
So far, US officials have been working with Iraqi authorities to coordinate airdrops of supplies to stranded populations. But the latest developments have had Washington considering whether to intervene with air strikes, the Guardian reported. The administration has been reluctant to get dragged into the escalating conflict in Iraq, but the possibility is not entirely off the table.
"There are times where the president has taken military action, sometimes in consultation with our allies, to protect innocent, vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter or other dire humanitarian situations," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today. But, he added: "There are no [US] military solutions to the very difficult problems that exist in Iraq."
In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called himself "appalled" at the latest strikes.
"Reports of Yezidis amassing along the Turkish border as well as thousands also trapped in the Sinjar mountains in desperate need of humanitarian assistance are of urgent and grave concern," the statement said, also calling on the international community, and "especially those with the influence and resources to positively impact the situation, to support the Government and people of Iraq and to do all it can to help alleviate the suffering of the population affected by the current conflict in Iraq."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi