BAGHDAD — The U.S. military dropped humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Iraqi religious minorities besieged by militants and desperately in need of food and water, President Barack Obama said late Thursday, defending the action as helping to prevent a possible genocide.
Obama said the humanitarian airdrops were made at the request of the Iraqi government as the Islamic State militant group tightened its grip on northern Iraq. Its fighters seized the country's largest hydroelectric dam on Thursday, taking control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
The Sunni radical group has been ending minority communities fleeing. The country's humanitarian crisis is growing, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
"These terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities," including Christians, Obama said in a televised statement from the White House.
The U.S. food and water supplies were delivered to tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi community trapped on a mountain without food and water. The Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, fled their homes after the Islamic State group issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee or face death.
Faced with the threats, some 50,000 — half of them children, according to United Nations figures — ran into the nearby Sinjar mountains.
"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain," Obama said.
He announced the airdrops only after the three American military cargo aircraft, escorted by fighter planes, had safely left the drop site. The planes delivered 5,300 gallons (20,060 liters) of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals.
Officials said the U.S. was prepared to undertake additional humanitarian airdrops if necessary.
Iraq's ambassador to the U.N., Mohamed Alhakim, earlier told reporters that his government had very limited resources to help the tens of thousands besieged.
"It's unfortunate, and this is why this is a catastrophe," he said.
The Sunni militant group has established its idea of an Islamic state in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Iraqi government forces, Kurds and allied Sunni tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the militants, with little apparent success.
The al-Qaida breakaway group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming it had taken control of the Mosul Dam and vowing to continue "the march in all directions," as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has imposed. The group said it has seized a total of 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets — including the dam and a military base — over the past five days. The statement could not be verified, but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.
The Mosul Dam — once known as the Saddam Dam for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein — is located just north of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which fell to the militants on June 10.
There are fears the militants could release the dam waters and devastate the country all the way to the capital Baghdad, though maintaining the dam's power and water supplies is key to their attempts to build a state.
"With the dam in its control, the Islamic State can use water as a coercive tool in creating dependency or as a deterrent threat hovering in the background," said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "It could potentially flood Baghdad or cut off its supply."
The Islamic State militants also overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area, several priests in northern Iraq said Thursday.
The capture of Qaraqoush, Iraq's biggest Christian village, and at least four other nearby hamlets, brings the Islamic State to the very edge of the Iraqi Kurdish territory and its regional capital, Irbil.
The U.N. Security Council after an emergency meeting on Thursday condemned attacks on minorities in Iraq and said the attacks could constitute crimes against humanity. UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, told reporters that his country would circulate a draft resolution late Thursday on Iraq that would include a "message of condemnation' and practical measures.
"There was deep alarm in the Security Council about the speed of events," he said. He said the immediate needs in Iraq are humanitarian but that it was still difficult to assess the scale of the crisis.