The jihadi Islamists have captured wide swathes of northern Iraq
since June, executing non-Sunni Muslim captives, displacing tens of
thousands of people and drawing the first U.S. air strikes in the
region since Washington withdrew troops in 2011.
After routing Kurdish forces earlier this week, Islamic State
militants are just 30 minutes' drive from Arbil, the Kurdish
regional capital which up to now has been spared the sectarian
bloodshed that has scarred other parts of Iraq for a decade.
Employees of foreign oil firms in Arbil were flying out. Kurds were
snapping up AK-47 assault rifles in arms markets for fear of
imminent attack, although these had been ineffective against Islamic
State fighters with superior firepower.
Given the Islamic State threat, a source in the Kurdistan Regional
Government said it had received extra supplies of heavy weaponry
from the Baghdad federal government "and other governments" in the
past few days, but declined to elaborate.
An engineer at Mosul dam told Reuters that Islamic State fighters
had brought in engineers to repair an emergency power line to the
city, Iraq's biggest in the north, that had been cut off four days
ago, causing power outages and water shortages.
"They are gathering people to work at the dam," he said.
A dam administrator said that militants were putting up the
trademark Islamic State black flags and patrolling with flatbed
trucks mounted with machineguns to protect the facility they seized
from Kurdish forces earlier this week.
The Islamic State, comprised mainly of Arabs and foreign fighters
who want to reshape the map of the Middle East, pose the biggest
threat to Iraq, a major oil exporter, since Saddam Hussein was
toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The Sunni militants, who have beheaded and crucified captives in
their drive to eradicate unbelievers, first arrived in northern Iraq
in June from Syria where they have captured wide tracts of territory
in that country's civil war.
Almost unopposed by U.S.-trained Iraqi government forces who fled by
the thousands, the insurgents swept through the region and have
threatened to march on Baghdad with Iraqi military tanks, armored
personnel carriers and machineguns they seized.
In their latest offensive, they also grabbed a fifth oilfield that
will help them fund operations, in addition to several towns and the
dam, which could allow them to flood
cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies.
The U.S. Defense Department said two F/A-18 warplanes from an
aircraft carrier in the Gulf had dropped laser-guided 500-pound
bombs on Islamic State artillery batteries. Other air strikes
targeted mortar positions and an Islamic State convoy.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the action was needed to halt the
Islamist advance, protect Americans in the region as well as
hundreds of thousands of Christians and members of other religious
minorities who have fled for their lives.
U.S. military aircraft also dropped relief supplies to members of
the ancient Yazidi sect, tens of thousands of whom have collected on
a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from insurgents who had ordered
them to convert or die.
IRAQ'S UNITY AT RISK
The territorial gains of Islamic State, who also control a third of
Syria and have fought this past week inside Lebanon, has unnerved
the Middle East and threatens to tear apart Iraq, a country split
between mostly Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
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Attention has focused on the plight of Yazidis, Christians
and other minority groups in northern Iraq, one of the most
demographically diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.
Washington, the Pentagon said planes dropped additional bundles of
supplies, bringing the total to 36,224 ready-to-eat meals and 6,822
gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar,
home of the Yazidis. They are ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient
faith related to Zoroastrianism.
The Islamic State considers them to be "devil worshippers".
After fighters ordered them to leave, convert or die, most fled
their towns and villages to camp out on Sinjar mountain, an arid
peak where they believe Noah settled after the biblical flood.
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region has until now been the only part
of Iraq to survive the past decade of civil war without a serious
Its vaunted "peshmerga" fighters - those who "confront death" - also
controlled wide stretches of territory outside the autonomous zone,
which served as sanctuary for fleeing Christians and other
minorities when Islamic State
fighters stormed into the region last month.
But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of Islamic
State, which had heavy weapons seized from Iraqi army troops that
abandoned their posts in June. In addition, the insurgents are flush
with cash looted from banks.
A U.N. relief spokesman said some 200,000 people fleeing the
Islamists' advance had reached the town of Dohuk on the Tigris River
in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tens of thousands had fled further north to the
Turkish border, Turkish officials said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki is a Shi'ite Islamist accused by
opponents of fuelling the Sunni insurgency by running an
authoritarian sectarian state.
He has refused to step aside to break a stalemate since elections in
April, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Obama, who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq in 2011 to fulfill a
campaign pledge, insisted he would not commit ground forces against
Islamic State and had no intention of letting the United States "get
dragged into fighting another war in Iraq".
But questions swirled in Washington about whether selective air
strikes on the positions of highly mobile, guerrilla-like militants
and humanitarian air drops would be enough to shift the balance on
the battlefield against Islamic State.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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