The Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State continued its aggressive assault on Iraq on Thursday.
This time, the militants made gains in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north of the country. After a week of conflicting reports, The New York Times and The Associated Press are reporting that fighters with the group also known as ISIS have, indeed, captured Iraq’s largest dam.
A military official tells NPR that faced with ISIS’s advance and what organizations like UNICEF are calling a growing humanitarian crisis, the Pentagon is considering airstrikes and humanitarian air drops in the region.
In its report, The New York Times quotes one unnamed U.S. official saying a decision from President Obama was expected “imminently.”
But during his regularly scheduled press briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he had no announcements to make. Earnest said the “humanitarian situation [in Iraq] is deeply disturbing,” but he would not comment on whether airstrikes are on the table.
Instead, he repeated what President Obama has said publicly: No matter what, American ground troops will not be deployed to Iraq, and military personnel on the ground are surveying the capabilities of Iraqi security forces, as well as the situation on the ground.
Earnest also called the situation in Iraq a “particularly acute problem.”
The capture of the Mosul dam could be, according to the Times, a “potentially catastrophic development for Iraq’s civilian population”:
“The dam, which sits on the Tigris River and is about 30 miles northwest of the city of Mosul, provides electricity to Mosul and controls the water supply for a large amount of territory. A report published in 2007 by the United States government, which had been involved with work on the dam, warned that should it fail, a 65-foot wave of water could be unleashed across areas of northern Iraq.
“Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh Province, whose capital is Mosul, said in a telephone interview from northern Iraq, where he has fled, that ISIS had secured the dam after what he called an ‘organized retreat’ of Kurdish security forces, known as pesh merga.”
As for the humanitarian angle, thousands of people from minority groups in Iraq have been displaced as ISIS continues its advance.
Earlier this week, UNICEF documented the deaths of 40 children who perished because of “violence, displacement and dehydration.” The organization said tens of thousands of people — including up to 25,000 children — were “stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar.”
As we’ve reported, ISIS has destroyed holy sites and also expelled and killed Shiites and other religious minorities across Iraq.
Of particular concern are the Yazidis who were pushed out of Sinjar by ISIS. The Washington Post reports that after the Kurds were unable to hold back ISIS, hundreds of thousands of civilians fled.
“An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 of them sought refuge on the craggy peaks of Mount Sinjar — largely members of the minority Yazidi sect,” the Post reports. “They fear death if they descend into areas controlled by the extremist rebels, who consider them apostates. Kurdish forces have so far failed to break through the militants’ lines to reach them, despite launching a counteroffensive early this week.”