IRBIL, Iraq: Islamist militants surged across northern Iraq toward the capital of the Kurdish region Thursday, sending tens of thousands of Christians fleeing for their lives and prompting the U.S. to mull airstrikes.
Reuters photographs showed what appeared to be Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria fighters controlling a checkpoint at the border area of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, little over 30 minutes’ drive from Irbil, a city of 1.5 million that is headquarters to the Kurdish regional government and of many businesses.
The fighters had raised the movement’s black flag over the guard post. However a Kurdish security official denied that the militants were in control of the Khazer checkpoint, and the regional government said its forces were advancing and would “defeat the terrorists,” urging people to stay calm.
The New York Times reported that U.S. President Barack Obama was considering airstrikes or humanitarian airdrops to help trapped religious minorities in Iraq.
The White House said the U.S. government and military were supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces to protect people trapped by ISIS fighters.
Spokesman Josh Earnest said any U.S. military action would be “very limited in scope” and tied to Iraqi political reforms, adding: “There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq.”
Sunni militants captured Iraq’s biggest Christian town, Qaraqosh, prompting many residents to flee, fearing they would be subjected to the same demands the Sunni militants made in other captured areas – leave, convert to Islam or face death.
ISIS, considered more extreme than Al-Qaeda, sees Iraq’s majority Shiites and minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious community, as infidels.
France called on the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to “counter the terrorist threat in Iraq.”
ISIS said in a statement on its Twitter account that its fighters had seized 15 towns, the strategic Mosul dam on the Tigris River and a military base, in an ongoing offensive that began at the weekend.
Kurdish officials say their forces still control the dam, Iraq’s biggest.
Two witnesses told Reuters by telephone that ISIS fighters had hoisted the group’s black flag over the dam, which could allow the militants to flood major cities or cut off significant water supplies and electricity.
The Kurdish Regional government’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that “our victory is close.”
A Kurdish government security adviser said there were multiple layers of security and a trench protecting the regional capital. “Irbil city is fine,” he said.
The militants’ weekend capture of the town of Sinjar, ancestral home of the Yazidi ethnic minority, prompted tens of thousands of people to flee to surrounding mountains, where they are at risk of starvation.
Yazidis, seen by the Islamic State as “devil worshipers,” risk being executed by the Sunni militants seeking to establish an Islamic empire and redraw the map of the Middle East.
Thousands of Iraqis, most of the Yazidis, are streaming to the border with neighboring Turkey to flee the fighting, Turkish officials said.
In Kirkuk, a strategic oil town in the north held by Kurdish forces since government troops melted away in June, 11 people were killed by two car bombs that exploded near a Shiite mosque holding displaced people, security and medical sources said.
In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shiite district, killing at least six people, police said. Earlier, a car bomb in another Shiite area of the capital killed 14.
Iraq’s National Alliance, a bloc compromising the biggest Shiite parties, was close Thursday to nominating a “nationally acceptable” figure to become prime minister, its spokesman said Thursday, suggesting Maliki would fail to secure a third term.