WASHINGTON -- The United States is flying planes full of humanitarian aid into Iraq, preparing to airdrop the packages onto a mountaintop hosting tens of thousands of religious minorities seeking refuge from the threat of imminent slaughter by an army of Islamist extremists.
Without adequate supplies of food or water, Yazidis have attempted to flee militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, into northern Iraq's Sinjar mountain range. ISIS, a Sunni fundamentalist militia controlling territory through eastern Syria and northern Iraq, has threatened all religious groups unlike themselves with extermination, should they refuse to convert to Sunni Islam.
The US government estimates that up to 40,000 Yazidis may be seeking refuge.
The US also has personnel in the region, specifically in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, which US President Barack Obama has vowed to protect if brought under siege by ISIS fighters. The conflation of both crisis scenarios has jolted the president's national security council into action, US officials say, after a meeting of council members on Thursday.
The White House warned on Thursday that the situation was "nearing a humanitarian catastrophe," fearing a ruthless killing spree from ISIS, a group with "callous disregard for human rights."
"We are gravely concerned for their health and safety," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Reports indicate that Yazidis on the mountain are already dying from hunger, thirst, and the intense summer heat.
"There are many problems in Iraq. This one, that we're talking about right now, is a particularly acute one, in that the stakes are very high," Earnest said. "The humanitarian situation is deeply disturbing there."
The Pentagon has prepared options not only for US strikes against ISIS, but also for aid drops and possible airlifts from the mountain for those under threat of persecution.
"There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq," Earnest said, of the general ISIS threat to Baghdad. "American military action in Iraq would not include boots on the ground."