BAGHDAD – The United Nations on Wednesday called 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 have been trapped in a desert mountain by the advance of Islamic militants across the north of the country.
The declaration of a “Level 3 Emergency” will trigger trigger additional goods, funds and assets to respond to the needs of those 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 over 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, becoming trapped for days without food or water. The U.S. and Iraqi military have dropped food and water supplies into the mountains, and in recent days Kurds from neighboring Syria battled to open a corridor to the mountain, allowing some 45,000 to escape.
Mladenov said tens of thousands of people are reportedly still trapped on Sinjar Mountain “with health conditions quickly deteriorating.” The White House said Wednesday it is considering a range of military options to rescue them, including airlifts and creating safe passages.
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, the U.N. said. 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.