War-torn Iraq facing massive refugee crisis
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.”