UPDATE (9:15 a.m. EDT): U.S. warplanes launched an attack against ISIS artillery targeting Kurdish forces near Erbil this morning. The attack came less than 12 hours after President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against militant targets, if necessary.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: “At 2 in the morning ISIS took over Qaraqosh,” Amir Salim posted on Facebook in the early morning hours Wednesday.
It was a bare statement representing the exhaustion of families from Mosul and nearby villages after two months of watching the radical Islamist army, now calling itself the Islamic State, rampage through Mosul and surrounding areas with no pushback from the Iraqi army or international allies like the United States.
During that time Iraqis like Salim have tried to come to terms with their new normal—an influx of thousands of displaced Christians and others overflowing hotels, churches, even sleeping in parks and vacant lots. Salim and his wife run a daycare center in Erbil flooded in recent weeks with an influx of displaced children from needy families.
Overnight, fear and flight again took over, as ISIS fighters made a surprising advance on two fronts—targeting Iraqi Yezidis in Sinjar city and ousting Christians from the remaining towns of Nineveh province. Since the new offensive began this week, reports of massacres and mass deprivation are skyrocketing.
The news prompted President Barack Obama late Thursday to authorize airstrikes and announce humanitarian aid air drops, saying the United States “must act now” because of the “ruthless campaign targeting Iraqis, mostly religious minorities.”
Even as the president gave a forceful eight-and-a-half minute speech, he also made clear the limitations of his actions. He said he authorized airstrikes only to protect American diplomats serving at the U.S. Consulate in Erbil and U.S. military personnel based there. And the aid drops were sent to Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, where reportedly up to 60,000 Yezidis have taken refuge. Obama emphasized, “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.”
Pointedly not included in the president’s authorization: protection for tens of thousands of Christians also made homeless, with many killed, by the ISIS onslaught.
ISIS fighters entered predominantly Christian villages and towns in Nineveh Plain starting Wednesday, forcing the withdrawal of Kurdish forces that advanced to protect these areas after the June 10 ISIS takeover of Mosul.
By late Wednesday, ISIS controlled key areas long inhabited by Christians, including Telskuf and its Catholic convent and school, and Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Nineveh province. All 50,000 to 60,000 of its residents have fled to Erbil, with a number of reported deaths, including one Christian mother and her two children. In addition, there are reports of those who did not escape facing execution and abduction into sex slavery and forced marriages.
“Qaraqosh is a Christian village, gone forever … ,” posted Salim, who served during the Iraq war as a translator for U.S. forces based just outside Mosul. He and his family migrated to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, after the 2011 American withdrawal from Iraq. His extended family in Mosul has repeatedly evacuated then gone back until late last month when ISIS issued its deadly decree against Christians and targeted non-Sunni Muslims as well.
By Thursday, according to an Iraqi church leader not named for security reasons, “All Nineveh Plain towns, townships and villages … are controlled by ISIS.” The fighters reportedly also were advancing to a refugee camp for displaced Christians, he said. Overall, according to Barnabas Fund, 200,000 Christians are now displaced as a result of ISIS gains in Nineveh province.
Of the estimated 200,000 Yezidis forced to flee the towns of Sinjar, Tel Afar, and Zummar, most reached the areas of Kurdish control, but an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 are trapped on Mount Sinjar—despite the initial U.S. aid drop. Their situation, according to Hudson Institute fellow Nina Shea, is “truly desperate.” The Assyrian Aid Society reports that 45 children died of thirst on Tuesday alone, and ISIS killed 1,500 men in front of their families.
A single C-17 and two C-130 transports dropped U.S. aid in the area Thursday, escorted by two F-18 jet fighters. They flew over the area for less than 15 minutes, administration officials were careful to emphasize, and dropped a total of 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 MREs (meals ready to eat).
In the city of Sinjar, the Assyrian Aid Society said about 50 Christian families are among the thousands who did not escape and “more than 70 girl [sic] and women including Christians were taken, raped and being captured and sold.”
More threats await. The unbroken march of ISIS has given the militants control of areas right up to the Kurdish borders and surrounding Baghdad from the north, west, and south. The group on its website also claimed Thursday to have taken control of Mosul Dam. The 2-mile-wide dam along the Tigris provides power to Mosul and Baghdad.
Long known to be structurally unsound, the dam requires extensive grouting operations—six days a week—to limit seepage into a highly soluble bedrock that causes the foundation to dissolve, leading to larger holes in the dam. On Monday, Richard Coffman, a civil engineering professor at the University of Arkansas who has monitored the dam since 2003, released a statement warning that an ISIS takeover of the facility could prove catastrophic.
“Simply put, if ISIS does not continue grouting operations, the dam may fail,” Coffman said. “If failure occurs, Mosul will be inundated with approximately 30 meters of water and Baghdad with 5 meters of water.”
That size calamity could lead to tens of thousands of deaths, something no longer unthinkable in a crumbling Iraq.