The United Nations is warning of a humanitarian “tragedy," saying hundreds of thousands of civilians are fleeing the latest advances by Islamist militants in northern Iraq.
In recent days, fighters of the so-called Islamic State, an Al Qaeda breakaway faction, and allied forces have overrun new stretches of territory in the Nineveh plains of northwestern Iraq, including the town of Sinjar. The town and its environs had previously provided shelter for vulnerable ethno-religious groups escaping the Sunni Islamist advance.
As many as 200,000 civilians, many from the Yazidi minority — who follow a pre-Islamic faith linked to Zoroastrian beliefs — have fled to nearby mountains and elsewhere, the U.N. says.
The Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, views as “infidels” both Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, who have also fled the area in huge numbers as the jihadists and their allies continue their onslaught. There have been reports of executions of Yazidis and Shiites and destruction of their places of worship.
Thousands of Christians have also fled the area in the wake of the Islamic State advance and its capture in June of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, long a hub of Christianity.
“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” Nickolay Mladenov, the top U.N. official in Iraq, declared in a statement on Sunday, citing an “urgent need” for food, water and medicine. “I call on all Iraqi authorities, civil society and international partners to work with the United Nations to ensure the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.”
The new Islamic State thrust drove out Kurdish peshmerga forces who swept into the area in June after the Iraqi military retreated south, leaving a security vacuum. The disputed zone is close to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
The latest jihadist territorial gains, after weeks of a relatively stable front line in northwest Iraq, raise questions about how long Kurdish forces can hold off Islamic State and allied fighters in northwestern Iraq. Many Sunni Muslims tribal groups and other Sunnis disaffected with the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad have formed alliances with the Islamic State, bolstering jihadist strength.
The Islamic State has vowed to march on to Baghdad, but the capital remains firmly in the hands of the central government and is heavily defended by the Iraqi military and allied Shiite militiamen.
Meanwhile, Islamic State forces have also overrun two small oil fields in northwest Iraq and threatened a major dam in the area, according to various reports. The jihadists have seized oil and gas fields in Iraq and neighboring Syria and have been reportedly selling oil on the black market.