US: Iraq situation near humanitarian catastrophe

Washington - The United States warned on Thursday a jihadist offensive in northern Iraq could provoke a "humanitarian catastrophe", amid reports that President Barack Obama was considering US military action.

"It is a situation that that we are looking at very closely," White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said, following reports that Obama was talking with military advisors about options for intervention.

Earnest would not confirm the reports that US air strikes are on the table, but said American personnel were studying conditions on the ground in cooperation with Iraqi security forces.

"So if there are specific needs that need to be met in terms of enhancing Iraq security forces' capabilities, then we will look to provide it," he added, without giving further details.

"The United States strongly condemns ISIL's assault on Sinjar and surrounding areas of northern Iraq," Earnest said, using the acronym for the Sunni extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

"These actions have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis and the situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe," he said, accusing the group of targeting religious minorities.

"We're concerned about the welfare of the large community of Iraqi Yazidis who are stranded on Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter and the Iraqi Christians who have been forced to flee from their villages in the region.

"We're deeply concerned about reports that ISIL has abducted as many as several hundred girls from these vulnerable communities," he continued.

"We're working intensively with the government of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish authorities in the immediate area to support their efforts to address the humanitarian situation in Sinjar."

US media, citing senior White House officials, said Obama was weighing military options for strikes against the jihadists and aid drops to the displaced and besieged civilians.

Asked about the reports, Earnest said: "I'm not in a position to rule things on the table or off the table in this context."

Obama came to office determined to end US military involvement in Iraq and in his first term oversaw the withdrawal of the huge ground force deployed there since the 2003 American invasion.

But recent rapid gains by the Islamic State, a successor group to Al-Qaeda's former Iraqi and Syrian operations, compelled him to send military advisors back to Baghdad to evaluate the situation.

The UN Security Council was to hold emergency talks on the crisis later Thursday, and France has pledged support for forces "engaged in battle" against the IS radicals.

The group, along with allied Sunni factions, is at war with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's mainly Shi'ite government forces and with the peshmerga forces of the Kurdish autonomous region of the country.

In late June it proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling rebel-held areas of Syria and Iraq and seized the major city of Mosul. In recent days it has seized towns formerly populated by Christians and Yazidis.

Iraqi religious leaders say Islamic State militants have forced 100 000 Iraqi Christians to flee and have occupied churches, removing crosses and destroying manuscripts.

Meanwhile, several thousand Yazidis, members of an ancient pre-Muslim religious minority, are stranded on high ground after being driven out of their home town of Sinjar by IS fighters.

"It's important for everyone to understand - and the president has made this clear - that there are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq," Earnest cautioned.

"We can't solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions. That is the core of our thinking as we confront these kinds of situations."