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Islamic Militants Seize Christian Towns In Northern Iraq

Kurdish Peshmerga troops stand guard during an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh on August 6.
Kurdish Peshmerga troops stand guard during an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh on August 6.

Militants from the Islamic State have seized Iraq's largest Christian town and surrounding areas in northern Iraq, prompting the exodus of tens of thousands of people.

The capture of Qaraqosh by the Sunni-led extremists on August 7 followed the overnight withdrawal of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who had suffered a humiliating defeat in the area over the weekend.

Before the Islamic State -- then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) -- seized large swaths of western and northern Iraq in June and declared a caliphate, Qaraqosh had a population of about 50,000 people, mostly Christians.

But thousands of displaced Iraqis also fled to Qaraqosh and other nearby towns that were being defended by Kurdish fighters since the militants seized Mosul in June.

Militants also seized the mostly Christian towns of Tall Kayf, Bartella, and Karamlesh.

The other towns seized by the Islamic State on August 7 also had communities from the Shabak Shi'ite minority.

Reports say almost all of the residents and displaced Iraqis have fled the towns.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on August 7 called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the advances of Islamic militants in Iraq.

Earlier, Pope Francis called for world governments to take steps to protect Christians driven from their villages in northern Iraq and provide them with humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Kurdish television reports that Mahmour and Gwar -- two Kurdish settlements less than 40 kilometers west of the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil -- fell to the militants on August 6.

The conquests put the jihadist fighters less than 20 kilometers from the border of northern Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region.

Yazidis Flee Massacres

Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqis from the Yazidi minority who fled the militants' advance into the nearby town of Sinjar during the weekend are now stranded in the barren Sinjar Mountains with little food or water.

Those Yazidi families practice a 4,000-year-old religion that is rooted in Zorastraianism.

Yazidi leaders have warned that their entire community is at risk of being massacred or starved into extinction.

Their plight has prompted the United Nations to mobilize its resources to assist them, with some displaced Yazidis being evacuated since August 6.

But reports say the total number of people forced to flee the latest jihadist advance dwarfs the exodus that was sparked in July by the Islamic State's ultimatum for Christians and other non-Muslims to convert to Islam or face the threat of execution.

A UN spokesman on August 7 said a total of 200,000 people had fled fighting in northern Iraq in recent days, creating a "tragedy of immense proportions."

The Islamic State also claimed it had seized Iraq's largest dam, the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, but Kurdish forces said the dam was still under their control.

The latest militant advances come despite a counterattack on Mosul that was launched by Kurdish fighters on August 6 in coordination with air strikes by Iraqi government forces.

Iraqi officials say one air strike on August 6 targeted a building in Mosul that was under the control of the Sunni militants, killing at least 60 people.

Medical workers said the building was a prison run by the Islamic State since it seized Mosul in June.

But an Iraqi military spokesman described the building as a Shari'a court that was created by the jihadists.

Kurdish forces also were shelling the eastern and northeastern districts of Mosul on August 6 but have been unable to dislodge the militants.

In the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, two car bombs killed at least six people near a Shi'ite mosque where people displaced by attacks on nearby towns had sought refuge.

In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in a predominantly Shi'ite northern neighborhood, killing at least 12 people on August 7.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and "The New York Times"
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