As Islamist militants seize more territory in northern Iraq, forcing people from religious minorities to flee, President Barack Obama has warned of the risk of genocide and authorised US military action.
It means air drops of food and water to the displaced as well as air strikes on the jihadists if they advance on the Kurdish capital Irbil where US diplomatic and military staff are based.
“Today I authorised two operations in Iraq – targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, in this case a request from the Iraqi government and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”
“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said.
The UN Security Council held an emergency session earlier on Thursday amid alarm at the plight of thousands from Iraq’s ancient Yazidi minority who have fled to the mountains after their hometown of Sinjar was captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group.
President Obama said US humanitarian air drops had already begun.