BAGHDAD — Up to 30,000 people are still facing a “potential genocide” on a mountain in northern Iraq, the UN warned as the country’s premier designate gained widespread support from countries hoping political reconciliation would help undercut jihadists.
Thousands of members of minority groups, including Yazidis and Christians, faced a major threat from militants of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and a worsening humanitarian situation.
UN refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters there were 20,000-30,000 people on Mount Sinjar, and UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak warned they face “a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours”.
A helicopter carrying aid to trapped people crashed during takeoff in the north Tuesday, killing a pilot and injuring Yazidi MP Vian Dakhil, who has worked to bring attention to the plight of besieged members of her community.
New York Times journalist Alissa J. Rubin was also injured in the crash, the paper said.
Overnight Tuesday the US military conducted a sixth airdrop of a total of 108 bundles of food and water for thousands of Iraqis on Mount Sinjar, said a media release of the US Central Command in Florida.
To date, in coordination with the government of Iraq, US military aircraft have delivered nearly 100,000 meals and more than 27,000 gallons of fresh drinking water.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States had sent 130 more military advisors to northern Iraq to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis there.
A US defence official said the temporary additional personnel would also develop humanitarian assistance options beyond the current airdrop effort in support of the displaced civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.
The additional personnel comprise Marines and special operations forces.
Britain said it has agreed to transport military supplies for the Kurdish forces from “other contributing states”.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed Wednesday his country would join humanitarian airdrops in Iraq, and did not rule out the possibility of greater military involvement.
International support builds for Abadi
Washington is urging premier designate Haider al-Abadi to rapidly form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against the jihadists, who have overrun swathes of the country.
Abadi came from behind in a protracted and acrimonious race to become Iraq’s new premier when President Fuad Masum on Monday accepted his nomination and tasked him with forming a government.
He has 30 days to build a team which will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that IS “is not the only game in town”.
Meanwhile, former premier Nuri al-Maliki’s hopes of retaining power were dealt a further blow by Iran, which issued a message congratulating Abadi on his new role.
While Maliki insists the premiership should be his, declaring Abadi’s selection a “constitutional violation”, his bid to retain power has reached a dead end with the widespread international backing for his rival, especially from Tehran and Washington.
Obama had made it clear he thought no effective and coordinated anti-jihadist counter-offensive could take place while Maliki was still in charge.
In a further blow for Maliki, Iran on Tuesday ended its long-time support for him and swung its allegiance behind Abadi in a congratulatory message.
“We congratulate Haidar al-Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population and its political groups,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary and representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said in Tehran.
Maliki on Tuesday ordered the armed forces to “stay away from the political crisis”, assuaging fears that he could seek to leverage military power to stay in office.
In an apparent warning to Maliki, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday that Washington “would reject any effort, legally or otherwise, to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process”.
“There’s a constitutional process, it is happening, and that is what we support.”
“We are urging him to form a new cabinet as swiftly as possible and the US stands ready to support a new and inclusive Iraqi government and particularly its fight against” IS, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Sydney Tuesday.
He also reiterated Washington’s stance that US air strikes begun last week were not a prelude to the reintroduction of American combat forces.
Iraq on the brink
The political transition comes at a time of crisis for Iraq.
After seizing the main northern city of Mosul in early June and sweeping through much of the Sunni heartland, jihadist militants bristling with US-made military equipment they captured from retreating Iraqi troops launched another onslaught this month.
They attacked Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities west, north and east of Mosul, sparking a mass exodus that sent the number of people displaced in Iraq this year soaring.
A week of devastating gains saw the IS jihadists take the country’s largest dam and advance to within striking distance of the autonomous Kurdish region.
They also attacked the large town of Sinjar, forcing thousands of mainly Yazidi civilians to hide on Mount Sinjar with little food and water.
The United States and other countries have also said they are working to deliver much-needed arms to the Kurds, who are fighting IS militants on several fronts.
US strikes and cross-border Kurdish cooperation yielded early results on several fronts, with Kurdish troops beginning to claw back lost ground.