Islamic State militants seize Christian town in northern Iraq; thousands flee

By Loveday Morris August 7 at 9:51 AM – THE WASHINGTON POST – BAGHDAD — Sunni Muslim extremists seized control of a Christian town in northern Iraq on Thursday, puncturing Kurdish defenses and sending thousands of civilians fleeing.

Kurdish officials pleaded for international assistance as they appeared to be losing control of the 650-mile border that the semiautonomous region now shares with militants from the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter group. The Kurdish forces were forced to pull out of the town of Qaraqosh overnight, the officials said. The ancient Christian town had become home to thousands of displaced Christians from the northern city of Mosul after the extremists gave them an ultimatum with three choices: convert to Islam, remain Christian but pay special taxes, or die.

In a statement, the Islamic State listed more than a dozen military gains over the past five days and claimed to now control the Mosul Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the country. If breached, the dam could unleash disastrous flooding.The Kurdish government had warned for weeks that it was unable to maintain the fight along the front with the militants unless its forces received outside support. A lack of ammunition and advanced weaponry forced the retreat from Sinjar on Sunday, Kurdish officials said.The Kurds say they are trying to put out fires on multiple fronts, attempting to recapture land only to be attacked elsewhere as the Islamic State continues to jab at the Kurdish region’s boundaries.

“It’s not fair that we are left fighting these terrorists alone,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, Bakir, the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government. “If we pressure them in one place, they turn around and attack us somewhere else.”

Kurdish forces have been attempting a counteroffensive in and around Sinjar since the Islamic State made its first major advance against them at the weekend. However, they were forced to send reinforcements 150 miles east to Makhmur and Gweir as the militants attempted to push closer to their regional capital, Irbil.

The setbacks compound an already desperate humanitarian situation. Politicians appealed Wednesday for emergency aid for thousands of minority Iraqis who have been stranded with little food on a mountaintop in the country’s north, surrounded by the al-Qaeda-inspired rebels.For nearly two months, Kurdish forces had managed to protect the area from the Sunni extremists, who have rampaged through much of northern Iraq, slaughtering opponents, destroying ancient shrines and demanding that people of other religions convert or die. But last weekend the famously tough Kurdish fighters suffered their first setbacks in the Sinjar region, prompting hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee.

An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 of them sought refuge on the craggy peaks of Mount Sinjar — largely members of the minority Yazidi sect. They fear death if they descend into areas controlled by the extremist rebels, who consider them apostates. Kurdish forces have so far failed to break through the militants’ lines to reach them, despite launching a counteroffensive early this week.The Iraqi government conducted two airdrops of aid to the desperate refugees on Wednesday, but humanitarian workers said they did not come close to meeting the growing need. Some of the water bottles in the aid bundles cracked open.

“Is help coming?” one of those trapped on the mountain, 23-year-old Shihab Balki, asked when contacted by cellphone — one of the few belonging to the refugees that still had battery life. He said at least 17 children have died on the mountain because of the inhospitable conditions.

“I’m standing here next to an old lady and a child lying on the ground,” Balki said. “They are not dead, but we fear they are dying.”The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it has confirmed that children have perished on Mount Sinjar but that it does not have verified up-to-date figures.Balki said later Wednesday that he had managed to secure about four gallons of water for his family of seven from one of the day’s airdrops — not nearly enough in the hot Iraqi summer. Many of the bottles dropped in a wooden crate had cracked, their precious contents spilling onto the rocks, he said. Earlier airdrops included food and milk, but the cartons of milk also smashed on the mountainside, he said. Haji Ghandour, a Yazidi parliamentarian in Baghdad, said the shortage of aid was acute. “There are some airdrops, but they aren’t even covering half the need,” he said. “Most of these supplies fall near [Islamic State fighters]; others break and are ruined. The operation is not accurate.”

The United Nations says the Iraqi government has yet to take up an offer of technical assistance for airdrops, which are being coordinated with local authorities in the Kurdish region. Bakir, the Kurdish foreign minister, argued that Iraq simply lacks the capacity to provide aid and needs international help. “This is not a time for technical assistance,” he said. “This is a time for immediate action. Children are dying.”