Survivors of Iraq jihadist siege stream into camps

Displaced Iraqi Yazidis, who fled a jihadist onslaught on the border area of Sinjar, gather to collect bottles of water at Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province, on August 13, 2014. Thousands of civilians poured into camps in
Displaced Iraqi Yazidis, who fled a jihadist onslaught on the border area of Sinjar, gather to collect bottles of water at Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province, on August 13, 2014. Thousands of civilians poured into camps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday.  -- PHOTO: AFP

DOHUK, Iraq (AFP) - Thousands of civilians who escaped a jihadist siege streamed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq Wednesday, as the West ramped up efforts to assist those still trapped and arm Kurdish forces battling to break the siege.

The United States has carried out air strikes against jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group in Mount Sinjar, a border area of Iraq where the UN refugee agency says 20,000-30,000 civilians, many of them members of the Yazidi minority, remain besieged.

Thousands poured across the border bridge into camps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, most with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they reached the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan after fleeing the jihadist offensive which drove Kurdish forces from their home villages.

But large numbers of people, including the most vulnerable, remain trapped on Mount Sinjar, said Mahmud Bakr, 45.

"My father Khalaf is 70 years old - he cannot make this journey," he told AFP as he crossed back into Iraq.

UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak has warned the trapped civilians face "a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours".

The Yazidi are a closed Kurdish-speaking community that follows an ancient pre-Muslim faith and are despised by the jihadists as "devil worshippers".

For those who managed to escape the jihadist siege, the relief of reaching relative safety was tempered by the spartan conditions of the camps hurriedly erected by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to accommodate them.

"We were besieged for 10 days in the mountain. The whole world is talking about us but we did not get any real help," said Khodr Hussein.

"We went from hunger in Sinjar to hunger in this camp."

As the international outcry over the plight of the Yazidis mounted, Western governments pledged to step up efforts to help those still trapped.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said "detailed plans are now being put in place" to rescue them. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was looking at options to bring them out.

Washington has already said it will ship weapons to the Kurds to help them fight back against the jihadists and on Wednesday France followed suit.

"The President has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours," President Francois Hollande's office said.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States has sent 130 more military advisers to northern Iraq to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis.

A US defence official said the temporary additional personnel would also develop humanitarian assistance options beyond the current airdrop to civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.

Britain said it has agreed to transport military supplies for the Kurdish forces from "other contributing states".

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his country would join humanitarian airdrops in Iraq, and did not rule out the possibility of greater military involvement.

Washington has urged Iraqi prime minister designate Haidar al-Abadi to move swiftly to form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against jihadist-led insurgents who have overrun swathes of the country.

Mr Abadi came from behind in an acrimonious process to select a new premier when President Fuad Masum on Monday accepted his nomination and tasked him with forming a government.

He has 30 days to build a team which will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that IS "is not the only game in town".

But on Wednesday, incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who had been determined to secure a third term, continued to defy international pressure to step aside, insisting it would take a federal court ruling for him to quit.

"I confirm that the government will continue and there will not be a replacement for it without a decision from the federal court," Mr Maliki said.

The two-term premier has accused Mr Masum of violating the constitution by approving Mr Abadi's nomination, and vowed he would appeal through the courts.

But the White House appealed to Maliki to accept the President's decision and allow Mr Abadi to form a government.

"He needs to respect that process," US national security spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters. "This is what the Iraqis themselves have decided to do." Whatever ruling the court might deliver, analysts say Mr Maliki has lost too much backing to stay in power.

International support has poured in for Mr Abadi, from Teheran as well as Washington, the two main foreign power-brokers in Iraq.

The political transition comes at a time of crisis for Iraq.

After seizing the main northern city of Mosul in early June and sweeping through much of the Sunni Arab heartland, jihadist militants bristling with US-made military equipment they captured from retreating Iraqi troops launched another onslaught this month.

They attacked Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities west, north and east of Mosul, sparking a mass exodus that sent the number of people displaced in Iraq this year soaring.