The U.S. will soon begin airdrops of aid for thousands of refugees driven from their homes by Islamist militants in Iraq, according to a defense official.
Planes dropping food and other humanitarian supplies to the refugees would be accompanied by combat aircraft, raising the possibility of airstrikes, a second official said. If the insurgents target the planes, the U.S. and Iraq would consider a larger air campaign against them. The officials asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.
A Pentagon spokesman denied reports on Kurdish television and cited by the New York Times that U.S. forces have already bombed at least two targets in northern Iraq.
“Press reports that U.S. has conducted airstrikes in Iraq completely false. No such action taken,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, on Twitter.
The potential escalation in U.S. involvement comes as the Islamic State, the group that seized swaths of northern Iraq in June, extended its advance today by seizing the Mosul dam, the country’s largest. They have also driven tens of thousands of people from their homes during an offensive in the past week, many from minority Yezidi and Christian communities.
“The Mosul dam is now under Islamic State control,” Hisham al-Brefkani, a member of the Nineveh provincial council, said in a phone interview. It holds back water that, if unleashed, could flood Mosul, northern Iraq’s biggest city, and wreak damage as far afield as Baghdad.
A dam employee, who was on site and asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons, confirmed that Islamic militants had overrun the installation.
Oil prices rose on the news, with Brent for September settlement climbing 76 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $105.35 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange at 12:47 p.m. in New York.
Control of the dam gives the Islamic State “a hand around the throat” of the country, Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, said by phone. The group will have “leverage over Baghdad, over Mosul, a lot of big civilian areas,” as well as the ability to “shut down army movement, shut down cities,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to blow it up because it would be destroying their own power base.”
Islamic State, which was previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and declared its own self-styled caliphate, highlighting the central government’s inability to ensure security under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
After its breakthrough two months ago, when it routed the Iraqi army and seized the city of Mosul, the group has returned to the offensive this week, defeating Kurdish fighters and sparking a new refugee crisis, especially among the Yezidi communities near the Syrian border.
Several predominantly Christian villages and towns, including Qaraqosh, fell into the hands of the militants, Yousif Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, said by phone today. Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga, who had been protecting the villages, retreated, allowing the militants to take over, Thomas said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. is “gravely concerned” for the health and safety of religious and ethnic minorities who have been targeted by the militants, saying it is “nearing a humanitarian catastrophe.”
He declined to say whether U.S. airpower will be used to assist. “I’m not in a position to shed light on the president’s thinking at this moment” he said, adding there are “no American military solutions” to the situation in Iraq.
The U.S. “is supporting the ongoing efforts of Iraqi officials and Kurdish officials” to assist those under siege, Earnest said. “If there are specific needs in Iraq, we will look to provide it.”
The Kurdistan regional government asked for international backing to step up its fight against the militants. “We need air support, weapons, and ammunition,” the Kurdish administration’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir said in an interview.
After the militants’ gains at Sinjar, near the Syrian border, about 140,000 people fled the region, according to United Nations children’s fund UNICEF. While most escaped to Kurdish-controlled areas, about 50,000 people, half of them children, were stranded in the mountains, UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma said by phone from Iraq.
“I received a text message from one of my relatives there before his phone’s battery died, saying there is a mass grave for the children,” Housam Salim, the head of the Solidarity and Brotherhood Yezidi Organization, said in a phone interview today from an area of Mosul controlled by Kurdish forces.
The Islamic State has used beheadings to intimidate people in its advance across Iraq and Syria and has terrorized religious minorities. It considers Yezidis, a community whose faith includes features of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, as apostates under its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Iraqi Christians have also been driven into exile. Firas Salem, 35, speaking by phone from a church in Erbil, where he has taken refuge, said he left the Christian town of Qaraqosh with his family yesterday following clashes between Peshmerga forces and militants who wanted to enter the town.
“At the very, very least, they would have let us leave with only the clothes on our backs and would have taken our money, jewelry and car,” Salem said of the militants. “That is, if they wanted to have mercy on us.”
Turkish F-16 fighter jets crossed into Iraqi airspace seeking intelligence on the militants near Erbil, Sabah newspaper reported today, without saying where it got the information.
Etihad Airways halted flights to Erbil in Northern Iraq until further notice in response to the deteriorating security situation. Flights to Basra and Baghdad are operating as normal, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier said in statement.
Dubai-based Emirates announced the termination of Erbil flights two days ago, though Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Qatar Airways are still planning to operate services there.
In Mosul, Islamic State militants have been marching in the streets and announcing from car-mounted loudspeakers that they’ve “regained all the disputed areas in Nineveh,” the province that includes the city and the dam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Shimmary, a resident, said by phone.
At the dam, the militants have ordered engineers and other staff to continue their work as normal, according to the employee on site. The dam undergoes regular maintenance and it’s not clear if that work will continue, the employee said.
Islamic State may “continue to use electricity and water as weapons,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said by e-mail. “The most likely uses will be to redirect both to their supporters and cut off both to their opposition.”
In a letter to Maliki in 2007, then-U.S. Ambassador in Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the army commander there, warned that structural flaws at the dam posed a threat to large areas of the country. “A catastrophic failure of Mosul Dam would result in flooding along the Tigris River all the way to Baghdad,” they wrote. Mosul would be in the severest danger, facing “a flood wave 20 meters deep.”
If the militants “have real pros on water and electricity systems with them, we may see some very curious events,” Sullivan said. “What might be an even more serious problem is if they have amateurs with them and they make serious errors in judgment. Either way, Iraq is under a greater threat today than yesterday.”