IRBIL, Iraq: Iraqis Friday welcomed the U.S. airlift of emergency aid to thousands of people who fled to the mountains to escape ISIS militants and called for greater intervention, as U.S. warplanes struck the jihadists for the first time.
Cargo planes dropped parachuted crates of food and water over an area in the mountains outside Sinjar, where thousands of members of the Yezidi minority were sheltering, according to witnesses in the militant-held town, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
In contrast to Washington’s decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against ISIS were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants’ lightning advance across the country.
“We thank Barack Obama,” said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the Religious Affairs Ministry in the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.
The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and the Displaced also welcomed the aid drops. The ministry’s spokesman, Satar Nawrouz, said the drops came “just in time.”
The extremist group’s capture of a string of towns and villages in the north has sent minority communities fleeing for their lives. ISIS views Yezidis and Shiites as apostates, and has demanded Christians and Yezidis either convert to Islam or pay a special tax. Tens of thousands of Yezidis have been trapped in the mountains since ISIS overran Sinjar.
Faced with the threats, about 50,000 Yezidis – half of them children, according to U.N. figures – fled to the nearby mountains, where they were running out of food and water.
An Iraqi military handout video posted online showed Iraqi troops in helicopters delivering aid to the area.
Traveling in India, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that more than 60 of the 72 bundles of food and water airdropped onto the mountain reached the people stranded there.
The latest population movements have exacerbated Iraq’s already-dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
The British air force will drop food aid in “the next couple of days,” the U.K. defense secretary said, although London has ruled out taking military action with Washington.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “extremely concerned by the appalling situation in Iraq and the desperate situation facing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.”
The government’s emergency committee, COBRA, met and agreed to help U.S. humanitarian operations in northern Iraq and send the Royal Air Force (RAF) to drop food for stranded civilians.
The drops will be targeted at members of the minority Yezidi community who have fled from the extremists to the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.
“What we have decided today is to assist the United States in the humanitarian operations that started yesterday. We are offering technical assistance in that in terms of refueling and surveillance,” said U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon.
Turkey is also stepping up humanitarian aid to northern Iraq, officials said, but looks unlikely to get involved in military action against advancing Islamist militants there unless its southern border with Iraq is directly threatened.
“Five trucks carrying aid to Iraq have hit the road today and they will go through the Habur border crossing Sunday,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters, adding that they were carrying food, medicine, blankets and other basic goods.
Separately, Pope Francis is sending a cardinal to Iraq to help thousands of Christians fleeing the rapid advance of ISIS, the Vatican said.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a former papal nuncio to the country, is being sent to Iraqi Kurdistan to show the pope’s “spiritual support and the church’s solidarity with the people who are suffering,” papal spokesman Federico Lombardi said. He said Filoni would be departing soon but gave no date.