(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is considering airstrikes and emergency relief airdrops to help 40,000 religious minorities in Iraq who are trapped on a mountaintop after threats by Islamic militants, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
Obama has been looking at a range of options, from dropping humanitarian supplies on Mount Sinjar to military strikes on fighters from the Islamic State who are at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official told the newspaper.
The Islamic State's Sunni militants, an offshoot of al Qaeda who have swept across northwestern Iraq in recent weeks, have even come within a 30 minutes drive of the Kurdish capital of Arbil. They inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces over the weekend and prompting tens of thousands from the ancient Yazidi community to flee the town of Sinjar for surrounding mountains.
Some of the many thousands trapped on Sinjar mountain have been rescued in the past 24 hours, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said earlier, adding that 200,000 had fled the fighting.
The Islamist fighters, who have killed many thousands and declared a caliphate in the area they conquered, are threatening the northern Iraq region of Kurdistan, previously considered a bastion of stability in a country ravaged by conflict.
The Kurds have made urgent appeals to Washington for arms or other military help, but the United States, committed to helping Baghdad restore a unified state and wary of Kurdish moves toward independence, have so far declined.
However, there have been signs the Obama administration may be shifting its position.
Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for Obama's National Security Council, told Reuters on Wednesday that any provision of U.S. weapons to the Kurds "must be coordinated with central government authorities, in Iraq and elsewhere."
But she added that given the threat from the Islamic State "the United States will continue to engage with Baghdad and Arbil to enhance cooperation on the security front and other issues. We are in continuous consultation with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to determine how they can best coordinate" to confront the militants.
She said Washington fully supported a decision earlier this week by Baghdad to send air support to Kurdistan.
The United States help protect the Kurds from an onslaught by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1991, with airdrops of humanitarian supplies and a no-fly zone to prevent Saddam's air attacks on the mountainous region.