Thousands of Iraqi Christians flee as Islamist militants advance
Islamic State militia surge towards Kurdish capital prompts talk of western action
Soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shiite volunteers take position during fighting with Islamic State (IS) fighters, in Amerly town, northeastern Baghdad yesterday. EPA/STR
Islamist militants surged across northern Iraq towards the capital of the Kurdish region yesterday, sending tens of thousands of Christians fleeing for their lives, in an offensive that prompted talk of Western military action.
Reuters photographs showed what appeared to be Islamic State fighters (formerly known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) controlling a checkpoint at the border area of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, little over a 30-minute drive from Arbil, a city of 1.5 million, headquarters of the Kurdish regional government and many businesses.
The fighters had raised the movement’s black flag over the guard post. However, a Kurdish security official denied that the militants were in control of the Khazer checkpoint, and the regional government said its forces were advancing and would “defeat the terrorists”, urging people to stay calm.
The New York Times reported that US president Barack Obama was considering airstrikes or humanitarian airdrops to help trapped religious minorities in Iraq.
The White House said the US government and military were supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces to protect people trapped by Islamic State fighters. Spokesman Josh Earnest said any US military action would be “very limited in scope” and tied to Iraqi political reforms, adding: “There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq.”
Sunni militants 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.
‘Infidels’ The Islamic State, considered more extreme than al-Qaeda, sees Iraq’s majority Shias and minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno- religious community, as infidels.
France called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to “counter the terrorist threat in Iraq”.
President François Hollande’s office said after he spoke by telephone with Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani that Paris was prepared to support forces engaged in the defence of Iraqi Kurdistan. It did not say how.
Shares in energy companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan plummeted on news of the sweeping Islamist advance towards oilfields in the region.
US oil company Chevron Corp said it was evacuating staff in light of the militants’ advance, and an industry source said Exxon Mobil Corp was also pulling out staff, although the company declined to comment on security concerns.
The Islamic State 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 offensive that began at the weekend.
Kurdish officials say their forces still control the dam, which is Iraq’s biggest.
Yesterday, two witnesses said by phone 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 Kurdish government security adviser said its forces had staged a tactical withdrawal.
BombingsFacebook and Twitter were blocked in Kurdistan yesterday, initially for 24 hours. A government official said the reason was to prevent militants from gathering any information about the movement of Kurdish forces from social media, and to stop rumours and panic.
The Kurdish regional government’s ministry of interior said in a statement that “our victory is close”.
The security adviser said many layers of security and a trench protected the regional capital. “Arbil city is fine,” he said.
The militants’ weekend capture of Sinjar, ancestral home of the Yazidi minority, prompted tens of thousands of people to flee to surrounding mountains, where they are at risk of starvation.
Some of the many thousands trapped on Sinjar mountain have been rescued in the past 24 hours, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, adding that 200,000 had fled the fighting.
“This is a tragedy of immense proportions, impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” spokesman David Swanson said.
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, regarded by the Islamic State as “devil worshipers”, risk being executed by the Sunni militants seeking to establish an Islamic empire and redraw the map of the Middle East.
Thousands of Iraqis are streaming to the border with neighbouring Turkey to flee the fighting, Turkish officials said.
The plight of fleeing Christians prompted Pope Francis to appeal to world leaders to help end what the Vatican called “the humanitarian tragedy now under way” in northern Iraq.
In Kirkuk, a strategic oil town in the north held by Kurdish forces since government troops melted away in June, 11 people were killed by two car bombs that exploded near a Shia mosque holding displaced people, security and medical sources said. In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shia district, killing at least six people, police said. Earlier, a car bomb in another Shia area of the capital killed 14.
Gains by the Islamic State have raised concerns that militants across the Arab world will follow their cue. At the weekend the Sunni militants seized a border town in Lebanon, though they appear to have mostly withdrawn.
The Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria that it controls, clashed with Kurdish forces on Wednesday in the town of Makhmur, about 60km (40 miles) southwest of Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone.
Witnesses said the militants had seized Makhmur, but Kurdish officials told local media their forces remained in control there, and television channels broadcast footage of Kurdish peshmerga fighters driving around the town. The mainly Christian town of Tilkaif, as well as Al Kwair, were over-run by militants, said witnesses.
Threat to integrityThe Islamic State poses the biggest threat to Iraq’s integrity since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Its fighters and their Sunni allies also control a big chunk of western Iraq.
The group has deepened sectarian tensions, pushing the country back to the dark days of the civil war that peaked in 2006-2007 under US-led occupation.
Bombings, kidnappings and executions are routine once again in Iraq, an Opec membersaid. Religious and ethnic minorities that have lived in the plains of the northern province of Nineveh are particularly vulnerable.
Sunni militants have been purging Shia Muslims of the Shabak and ethnic Turkmen minorities from towns and villages in Nineveh, and last month set a deadline for Christians to leave the provincial capital Mosul or be killed.
The Islamic State’s gains have prompted Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, to order his airforce to help the Kurds, whose reputation as fearsome warriors was called into question by their defeat. – (Reuters )