12 Aug 2014

Iraq: piles of aid lie idle as Yazidis starve and crews battle militants

I am in northern Iraq, which has become a magnet and haven for many different kinds of refugees (Iraqi Christians, Kurds, Turkmen, Muslim Arabs) – let alone those who fled here from Syria‘s civil war in the hope that Iraq was a safer bet.

Most notoriously right now, untold numbers of Yazidis marooned for up to 10 days in the deadliest natural sanctuary imaginable: a bleak range of mountains south of here, a barren wasteland scorching in thirty to forty degree heat.

Yesterday I reported on the harrowing scenes we witnessed when an Iraqi military helicopter rescued as many Yazidis as it could carry.

Only four helicopters are available for this work, which is dangerous on two counts: firstly, the aircraft come under attack from Islamic State militants, as happened to us yesterday; and secondly, helicopters risk being mobbed by Yazidis fighting one another to climb aboard.

So far today I have only seen one Iraqi helicopter take off; the others were deployed on bombing missions against IS jihadists. Instead of being loaded with water, biscuits and dehydration salts, they were armed with rockets.

The Kurd nominally in charge of coordinating this mission is beside himself with anguish. The helicopters don’t belong to him or to Kurdistan but to the government in Baghdad, which decides what the priorities are; either killing jihadists currently occupying large swathes of the country – or rescuing a little known Yazidi minority in Kurdistan, a region which wants to break away from Iraq and become its own country.

And so it is that I watch large piles of bottled water, and carrier bags full of bread and bananas, sitting idle on the tarmac of a military base, waiting for the brave Iraqi air crews to return from their bombing missions and carry the aid up the mountain instead.

There could be a fairly rapid solution to this humanitarian disaster: a helicopter airlift, with the aircraft provided by the Americans and possibly the French, who I am told have been showing signs of interest.

But the mantra of the Obama White House is that there are no American military solutions to Iraq’s problems. The question, I suppose, is when do you make exceptions to that guiding principle. If you were a Yazidi trapped on Mount Sinjar, you would answer “right now”.

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