IRBIL, Iraq — Desperate to reach tens of thousands of people who fled the Islamist militant takeover of the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar and are now trapped in rugged mountains outside the city, international aid officials and representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government on Wednesday called for the United States to mount a humanitarian mission to reach the beleaguered refugees.
With reports indicating that the displaced people were running out of water, a Kurdish security official said that the Iraqi air force lacked the resources needed to deliver enough supplies to ease the crisis. An Iraqi helicopter reportedly dropped some aid on Tuesday, he said, but it was unclear whether that assistance — primarily, bottled water — had reached its target.
International aid officials said there is no way to safely approach the area by land.
“We are discussing these options with the United States,” said the Kurdish official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to be quoted by name. “We need C-130s to drop huge amounts of water, food and medicine into the area, but this can be very difficult.”
The C-130 is a rugged workhorse transport plane that is well suited for such a mission. But an airdrop likely would require aircraft to fly at an altitude low enough that they could be targeted by Islamic State forces on the ground. Several Iraqi helicopters have been downed by shoulder-launched missiles in the weeks since Islamic State militants overwhelmed Iraqi army positions in Mosul.
Officials at the American consulate in Irbil did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s not an easy mission to prepare this quickly,” said the Kurdish official, who is based in Dohuk, about 30 miles from the front lines. “You need the supplies, you need to know exactly where to drop them, and you can’t get shot down by Daash,” he said, referring to the Islamic State by an Arabic acronym.
Nearly all the displaced are members of the Yazidi sect, ethnic Kurdish adherents to a religion that combines Islam and ancient Persian pagan beliefs and is considered heresy by the radical Sunni Muslims who make up the Islamic State. Since Islamic State militants took control of Sinjar on Sunday, there have been widespread, though unconfirmed, reports that Yazidis who failed to escape the takeover have been executed, tortured and raped.
The United Nations said this week that at least 40,000 people, including 25,000 children, were in the Sinjar Mountains with no shelter, food, medical supplies and, most crucially, because of the brutal Iraqi summer heat, drinking water. While the mountains’ remoteness and barren terrain offers some protection from the Islamic State, the militants control all approaches to the area.
Local news outlets have reported that dozens of children and elderly already have died from dehydration and that thousands more could succumb if massive amounts of aid are not delivered. Efforts to confirm those accounts by dialing the cellphones of people believed to have fled into the mountains failed, most likely because after days without electricity the cellphones’ batteries have died.
There was no response to a request for comment made to the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Baghdad on the Iraqi government’s efforts to supply aid to the displaced. One official from a major humanitarian organization, speaking on background so as to not antagonize Iraqi officials, was dismissive of reports that a helicopter had dropped water on Tuesday. “If these deliveries happened at all, they were a drop in the bucket of what is desperately needed,” the official said. “At this stage we think the best hope for many of these people will be an American-led airlift.”
The weekend’s surprise advance by the Islamic State, which included heavy machine-gun fire and sustained mortar barrages, overwhelmed lightly armed Kurdish garrisons along an 80-mile front. In addition to Sinjar, the militants also captured the city of Zummar and laid siege to the Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq and an important source of electricity.
In response, the Kurdish peshmerga militia, reputed to be the best fighting force in Iraq, mounted a multipronged counteroffensive that incorporated fighters from Kurdish regions in Turkey and Syria, who attacked Islamic State positions from the west while peshmerga units focused on breaking the siege of Mosul Dam and recapturing villages around Zummar.
Military commanders reached by phone said that the fighters from Turkey and Syria, who have links to the Kurdish Workers Party, better known as the PKK by its Kurdish initials, were targeting Sinjar and had made it to within 10 miles of the city. One PKK official said that a small unit had reached the stranded refugees and was working with an impromptu Yazidi militia to form a defensive perimeter to protect the area from any Islamic State advance.
The entry of the fighters from Syria and Turkey into the battle in northern Iraq was perhaps the most unexpected development of the last several days. The fighters, who describe themselves as members of local self-defense groups known by their Kurdish initials as YPG, have been battling the Islamist radicals in Syria for nearly two years. The YPG units are widely considered to be an offspring of the PKK, which has been battling the Turkish military for three decades in a push for autonomy for the Kurdish population of southern Turkey. The PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
The crisis also appears to be forcing a partial reconciliation between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish regional one based in Irbil. Since the weekend Islamic State advance, military supplies have been arriving at the airport in Irbil, and on Monday, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced that the peshmerga would no long limit their operations to protecting their nearly 900-mile frontier with territory held by the Islamic State and would begin a range of offensive operations.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.