(CNSNews.com) – A humanitarian tragedy is looming in northwestern Iraq, where up to 25,000 children, mostly from the minority Yazidi community, are among those who fled ahead of advancing Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) jihadists and are now stranded without water or supplies in arid, mountainous terrain.
The U.N. Children’s Fund in Iraq said Tuesday at least 40 children were already reported to have died, “as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days.”
Tens of thousands of people fled as ISIS seized control of the town and district of Sinjar west of Mosul at the weekend, pushing back Kurdish “peshmerga” forces who had been providing security there.
“Families who fled the area are in immediate need of urgent assistance, including up to 25,000 children who are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian aid including drinking water and sanitation services,” said UNICEF’s Iraq director, Marzio Babille.
He appealed to “all those who have influence to immediately grant children and women free and safe access to areas of refuge and respect the special protection afforded to children under international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Earlier this summer, Sinjar’s normal population of around 35,000 swelled by an additional 50,000 people who had been displaced by the ISIS advance, fleeing the violence, fears of persecution, summary executions, and abductions at the hands of the jihadists.
ISIS’ capture of Sinjar and surrounding areas prompted an exodus of both the usual inhabitants and those already displaced people.
UNICEF says the Sinjar district has a population of at least 150,000 children, many of whom are now displaced.
“Children are particularly vulnerable, and are most affected by the continuing violence, displacement and fighting in Iraq,” said Babille. “UNICEF repeats its urgent call for all children in need to be protected and immediately provided with life-saving assistance to prevent further loss of life.”
Sinjar has long been home to the world’s largest community of Yazidis (Yezidis), ethnic Kurdish adherents of a religion that predates Islam and Christianity and has links to Zoroastrianism. Many Muslims view them as apostates or even “devil worshippers,” and they have historically been oppressed, especially at the hands of Ottoman Turkey and Kurdish Sunnis.
Like the Christians of Mosul, Yazidis are being targeted by ISIS, the radical al-Qaeda-inspired group that controls large swaths of northern Syria and northern and western Iraq and has declared a “caliphate” in those areas.
ISIS’ advances in Iraq over the past two months has triggered a growing humanitarian crisis, with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) estimating that 1.2 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
UNAMI announced this week that at least 1,186 Iraqi civilians were killed in terrorism and violence in July. The previous month’s figure, a death toll of 1,531, was the highest for a single month since 2007.
(Those figures exclude deaths in Anbar province, where an army offensive against ISIS and allied tribal groups has been underway since last December. UNAMI relies on provincial health authorities for figures in Anbar – 198 in July, 244 in June.)
‘Absence of U.S. leadership’
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power on Tuesday condemned ISIS (also known as ISIL), for its recent attacks and voiced concern about the situation in the Sinjar region.
“ISIL’s reported abuse, kidnapping, torture and executions of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities and its systematic destruction of religious and cultural sites are appalling,” she said.
“We urge all parties to the conflict to allow safe access to the United Nations and its partners so they can deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance, including to those Iraqi families reportedly encircled by ISIL on Mount Sinjar.”
Power said the U.S. supports both the Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their bid to defend the territory against ISIS, and is “committed to helping the people of Iraq as they confront the security and humanitarian challenges in their fight against ISIL.”
The authorities in Baghdad have been appealing to the U.S. for months – since last August, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) – to carry out airstrikes against ISIS forces.
In June he did deploy 300 military advisors to support Iraqi security forces, as well as hundreds of personnel to reinforce security at the U.S. Embassy and the international airport in Baghdad.
Joint operations centers were set up in Baghdad and Irbil, and the U.S. advisors have been drawing up reports assessing the security situation and how the U.S. could help the Iraqi forces.
The first draft reports were submitted to the Pentagon in mid-July, although the administration has yet to announce any further decisions.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday the U.S. military was continuing to provide “ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] over the country” and manning and resourcing the two joint operation centers.
“We have assessment teams that remain on the ground,” he said. “They’re continuing to provide us observations.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of Obama’s foreign policy, accused the administration of taking “no discernible action” against ISIS as it continues its offensives in Iraq and Syria.
“With each day, ISIS grows stronger, larger, wealthier, more ambitious, and more dangerous,” he said in a statement. “Time is not on our side. ISIS is not just a problem for Iraq or Syria. It is also a threat to us, and the absence of U.S. leadership to confront it is dangerous.”
On Monday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the air force to provide aerial support to the peshmerga forces fighting against ISIS in the north – an unusual step given the strained relations between the Shi’ite-dominated government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.