Photo Essay

  • Christian refugees in the district of Ainkawa, near the Saint Joseph Church, in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 13, 2014.
  • Christian refugees in the district of Ainkawa in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 14, 2014. Iraq is now home to about 1.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers, according to United Nations estimates. 
  • Christian refugees in the district of Ainkawa in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS targets on Aug. 8 as part of a humanitarian mission that Pentagon officials declared a success.
  • On the road to Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 15, 2014.
  • Christian refugees in the district of Ainkawa, near the Saint Joseph Church, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 13, 2014. The Kurdish city of Erbil was one of the cities that the U.S. defended with air strikes that began Aug. 8.
  • Yazidi refugees in a village called Charia, Aug. 15, 2014. The ISIS-held Mosul dam is only a couple of miles away. 
  • Yazidi refugees in a village called Charia, approximately 2 miles from the ISIS-held Mosul dam, Aug. 15, 2014.
  • A Yazidi refugee in the city of Zakho, Dohuk province, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 16, 2014.
  • Cars abandoned by Yazidi refugees who fled Iraq for Syria, Aug. 18, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees walk in the city of Zakho, Dohuk province, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aug. 16, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees in the city of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some live in makeshift shelters where temperatures exceed 120 degrees while others take refuge in construction sites.
  • A member of the Kurdish armed group YPG (The People’s Protection Units) in Rojava, Syria, Aug. 17, 2014.
  • On Mount Sinjar, Men stand outside a Yazidi temple on a military base held by Kurdish forces on Mount Sinjar, Aug. 18, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2014.
  • A member of the Kurdish armed group, YPG (The People’s Protection Units), stands on the border between Syria and Iraq, where many Yazidi refugees have been evacuated by the YPG and the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party), Aug. 17, 2014.
  • A Yazidi refugee in a temple on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, where many people took refuge in military bases held by Kurdish forces.
  • Near the city of Dericke, in Rojava, Syria, an IDP camp where Yazidis fled from ISIS, Aug. 19, 2014.
  • Refugees in Rojava, Syria, near the city of Dericke, where many Yazidis fled to escape ISIS, Aug. 19, 2014.
  • A man stands outside a Yazidi temple in a military base held by Kurdish forces on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2014. The yellow cans are survival kits dropped by British planes.
  • A fighter builds a fence with sand bags on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2014. In the background, the city of Sinjar, held by ISIS.
  • Refugees in an IDP camp near the city of Dericke in Rojava, Syria, Aug. 19, 2014.
  • Near the city of Dericke, an IDP camp in Rojava, Syria, where Yazidis fled to escape ISIS, Aug. 19, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees in the city of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some live in makeshift shelters where temperatures exceed 120 degrees, while others take refuge in buildings in the area, Aug. 16, 2014.
  • Yazidi refugees in the city of Zakho, Dohuk province, Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • Near the city of Dericke, an IDP camp in Rojava, Syria, where Yazidis gathered after the massacres of ISIS.
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War-torn Iraq facing massive refugee crisis

Updated

The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is dire. Destabilized by a catastrophic civil war across its border in Syria, facing a genocidal threat to minorities at the hands of Sunni militants and divided by sectarian tensions within, Iraq is now home to about 1.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers, according to United Nations estimates. Nearly 1 million of those refugees are internally displaced Iraqis, many fleeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

For tens of thousands of minorities in northern Iraq, including Christians and Yazidis – an ancient Kurdish sect with ties to Zoroastrianism – ISIS presented an existential threat: Convert to Islam or die. Some chose to convert, as recent ISIS propaganda videos appear to document. Most fled into the Sinjar Mountains without food or water, where their plight brought the attention of the United States.

The U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS targets in northern Iraq on Aug. 8, a military operation described by President Obama as a limited campaign to protect refugees trapped in the mountains, provide them with humanitarian assistance, and to defend U.S. personnel in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil.

Although Pentagon officials declared that humanitarian mission a success, U.S. military operations in the region continue to expand, raising alarms that a broader war to contain ISIS could involve strikes in Syria, where the Islamist group has its headquarters in Raqqa. The U.S. has begun manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Syria to select potential targets for military strikes, U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday. Although no decision has yet been made, President Obama could authorize those strikes by the end of the week, officials said.

Strikes in Syria would mark a significant escalation of the unnamed U.S. military operation against ISIS, which began with the president’s stated goal of protecting Iraqi religious minorities from “genocide” and has since expanded, in the wake of ISIS’s beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, to his calling for “a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread.”

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography