BAGHDAD - The United Nations on Wednesday announced its highest level of emergency for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes and tens of thousands had been trapped on a desert mountain by the advance of Islamic militants across the north of the country.
But after a U.S. Army Special Forces team was flown atop Sinjar Mountain to assess the situation Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that far fewer refugees were stranded and it was far less likely the U.S. would undertake a rescue mission. Hagel said airdrops of food and water had sustained the refugees and that airstrikes on Islamic State group militants had allowed many to escape.
U.S. officials said only several thousand Iraqi refugees remained on Sinjar Mountain, and Hagel said they were in relatively good condition.
Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community look for clothes to wear among items provided by a charity organization at the Nowruz camp, in Derike, Syria, Tuesday. In the camps here, Iraqi refugees have new heroes: Syrian Kurdish fighters who battled militants to carve an escape route to tens of thousands trapped on a mountaintop. While the U.S. and Iraqi militaries dropped food and water to the starving members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, the Kurds took it on themselves to rescue them, a sign of how Syria’s Kurds, like Iraq’s, are using the region’s conflicts to establish their own rule.
The U.N.'s declaration of a "Level 3 Emergency" will trigger additional goods, funds and assets to respond to the needs of the displaced, said U.N. special representative Nickolay Mladenov, who pointed to the "scale and complexity of the current humanitarian catastrophe."
Since June, Iraq has been facing an onslaught by the Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants across much of the country's north and west. In recent weeks, the crisis has worsened as the militant fighters swept through new towns in the north, displacing members of the minority Christian and Yazidi religious communities, and threatening the neighboring Iraqi Kurdish autonomy zone.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled the advance to take refuge in the remote desert Sinjar mountain range. The U.S. and Iraqi military have dropped food and water supplies, and in recent days Kurds from neighboring Syria battled to open a corridor to the mountain, allowing some 45,000 to escape.
The U.N. said it would provide increased support to those who have escaped Sinjar and to 400,000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. Others have fled to other parts of the Kurdish region or further south. A total of 1.5 million have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in June and quickly swept over other parts of the country.
The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions. At the same time, Iraq's central government in Baghdad has been mired in political turmoil, after the president nominated a Shiite politician, Haider al-Abadi, to form the next government, putting him on track to replace embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.