A breakaway Al Qaeda group that already holds sway in large swaths of Iraq and Syria made new territorial gains Thursday in northern Iraq, reportedly overrunning a major Christian town and seizing the nation’s largest dam.
The fresh advances by the Islamic State and its allies have drawn grave concern in the central government in Baghdad, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region close to the latest fighting, and in Washington and other capitals alarmed at the militant onslaught.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said U.S. officials are “closely monitoring” the situation in northern Iraq but will not be sending combat troops back to the country. He refused to say whether the U.S. would consider any military action to protect refugees fleeing the advancing Sunni militants.
On Thursday, France called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council “so that the international community can mobilize to counter the terrorist threat in Iraq,” the French government said in a statement. Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq have publicly pleaded for additional military aid from the United States to confront the threat from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“We are left alone in the front to fight the terrorists of ISIS,” the foreign minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Falah Mustafa Bakir, told CNN in an interview Wednesday.
The Islamic State has at its disposal massive amounts of military materiel seized from Iraqi army depots, including U.S. armored Humvees and other U.S. equipment. Its forces fight alongside allies from Sunni Muslim tribes and other Sunni factions opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad headed by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
The new thrusts by the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq’s northwest were the latest blow to Kurdish peshmerga forces who have taken over security in the disputed area since Iraqi government forces beat a hasty retreat in June. Some analysts have suggested that the Kurds' reputation as fearsome fighters has been overstated.
Thousands of Christians were reported to be fleeing Thursday from the town of Qaraqosh, a major Christian center outside of Mosul, after Islamic State fighters occupied the town.
Several other Christian towns also faced being overrun, according to reports from the area. Many Christians had already vacated the zone and relocated to areas under the direct control of the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in the city of Irbil.
Kurdish forces were said to be tightening security in Irbil and elsewhere in the Kurdish zone amid reports of Islamic State attacks close to the borders of the Kurdish autonomous area.
The entire Christian population of Mosul is already believed to have fled the city after the Islamic State issued an ultimatum saying Christians must leave, convert or pay a special tax. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was among the areas seized by the militants in their June sweep through northern Iraq.
The region of northwestern Iraq is already dealing with a massive refugee flow, mostly of minority groups facing a threat from the Islamic State’s extreme Sunni Muslim fundamentalism.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a pre-Islamic sect with roots in Zoroastrianism, fled their homes in and around the town of Sinjar last weekend as Islamic State militants and allied fighters occupied Sinjar and other areas.
Many Yazidis are trapped in mountainous terrain outside Sinjar, lacking food, water, medicine and other staples, aid workers and community representatives have said. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian "tragedy" in the area.
Some Sunni fundamentalists view the Yazidis as "devil worshipers" because of their beliefs.
The Associated Press and other news agencies reported Thursday that Islamic State forces also had captured the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, forcing overwhelmed Kurdish forces to flee the facility. There was no immediate confirmation from Kurdish officials that the dam had been lost.
Control of the dam, on the Tigris River north of Mosul, would give the militants access to enormous water and power resources.
The Islamic State has already seized oil fields in Iraq and eastern Syria. Militant forces are also besieging a second major Iraq dam, in Haditha, close to the city of Fallouja in western Iraq.
Government troops at Haditha are reportedly holding out against the militants. In an online statement on Thursday, the AP reported, the Islamic State said it had seized the Mosul dam and more than a dozen other sites in the last five days.
Elsewhere in Iraq, news agencies reported car bombs and other attacks in Baghdad and in the northern city of Kirkuk, with many casualties. The latter city, in an oil-rich region, has been under the control of Kurdish forces since Iraqi central government forces retreated in June.
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