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ISLAMIC STATE EXTENDS GAINS, TAKES LARGEST DAM US mulls airstrikes to aid minorities

WASHINGTON, Aug 7, (Agencies): US President Barack Obama is considering airstrikes and emergency relief airdrops to help 40,000 religious minorities in Iraq who are trapped on a mountaintop after threats by Islamic militants, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

Obama has been looking at a range of options, from dropping humanitarian supplies on Mount Sinjar to military strikes on fighters from the Islamic State who are at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official told the newspaper. The Islamic State’s Sunni militants, an offshoot of al-Qaeda who have swept across northwestern Iraq in recent weeks, have even come within a 30 minutes drive of the Kurdish capital of Arbil. They inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces over the weekend and prompting tens of thousands from the ancient Yazidi community to flee the town of Sinjar for surrounding mountains.

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 Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said earlier, adding that 200,000 had fled the fighting. The Islamist fighters, who have killed many thousands and declared a caliphate in the area they conquered, are threatening the northern Iraq region of Kurdistan, previously considered a bastion of stability in a country ravaged by conflict. The Kurds have made urgent appeals to Washington for arms or other military help, but the United States, committed to helping Baghdad restore a unified state and wary of Kurdish moves toward independence, have so far declined.

However, there have been signs the Obama administration may be shifting its position. Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, told Reuters on Wednesday that any provision of US weapons to the Kurds “must be coordinated with central government authorities, in Iraq and elsewhere.” But she added that given the threat  from the Islamic State “the United States will continue to engage with Baghdad and Arbil to enhance cooperation on the security front and other issues. We are in continuous consultation with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to determine how they can best coordinate” to confront the militants. She said Washington fully supported a decision earlier this week by Baghdad to send air support to Kurdistan.

The United States help protect the Kurds from an onslaught by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1991, with airdrops of humanitarian supplies and a no-fly zone to prevent Saddam’s air attacks on the mountainous region. Meanwhile, Islamist militants surged across northern Iraq towards the capital of the Kurdish region on Thursday, 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 semiautonomous 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. 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.

Tragedy
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”. Elsewhere, French President Francois Hollande on Thursday pledged his country’s “support” to forces battling Islamist militants in Iraq amid growing Western concern over an advance by Islamic State fighters. “The president confirmed that France was available to support forces engaged in this battle,” Hollande’s office said in a statement, after the French leader spoke about Iraq by telephone with the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massud Barzani. Hollande did not specify what form the “support” could take. The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting on Iraq on Thursday, after Islamist militants seized the country’s largest Christian town.

The meeting was requested by France which expressed concern over the advance of Islamic State fighters and the seizure of Qaraqosh, in a new offensive that has driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. The talks are scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm (2130 GMT), a diplomatic source said. “France is very deeply concerned by the latest advances of (IS militants) in the north of Iraq and the taking of Qaraqosh, the biggest Christian city in Iraq, as well as by the intolerable abuses that were committed,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement

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