Young Iraqi Yazidi refugees fill bottles with water at the Newroz camp in Hasaka province, north eastern Syria, on Thursday August 14, 2014, after fleeing advances by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAFP/Getty Images)
Crisis in Iraq
BRUSSELS — The European Union on Friday forged a unified response to the rapid advance of Islamic militants in Iraq and the resulting refugee crisis, allowing direct arms deliveries to Kurdish fighters battling the Sunni insurgents, while several EU nations pledged more humanitarian aid.
The emergency meeting of the bloc's 28 foreign ministers in Brussels marked a shift toward greater involvement in Iraq, following weeks during which Europeans mainly considered the situation an American problem because of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion.
EU ministers pledged to step up their efforts to help those displaced by the advances of militants from the Islamic State group, with several nations announcing they will fly dozens of tons of aid to northern Iraq over the coming days.
"First of all we need to make sure that we alleviate humanitarian suffering," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told reporters. "Secondly, I believe we need to make sure that IS is not in a position to overrun the Kurds or to take a stronger hold on Iraq."
France has pledged to ship weapons to the Kurds, Britain is delivering ammunition and military supplies obtained from eastern European nations and is considering sending more weaponry. Germany, the Netherlands and others said they would also consider requests to arm the Kurds.
Europe's initiative came as Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step down after weeks of insisting on a third four-year term, a move that could pave the way for a more inclusive government and strengthen Baghdad's position in battling the Sunni insurgency.
A veteran Shiite lawmaker, Haider al-Abadi, now faces the challenge of forming a stable government and engaging Sunni politicians who say their disenfranchisement under al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government fueled support for the insurgency among the Sunni minority.
The EU foreign ministers called on al-Abadi to urgently form a government that will be "inclusive and able to address the needs and legitimate aspirations of all the Iraqi citizens." U.S. and EU officials have said they can beef up their support for Iraq once a stable government is in place.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, meanwhile, insisted the militants' advances in Syria and Iraq represent a "threat that can reach the heart of Europe," making it not only a moral responsibility but also a matter of "national interest" to help keep IS at bay.
The IS militants' advances also bring danger closer to European shores: Officials say about 1,700 radical Muslims from France, Britain and Germany alone are believed to have joined the fighting. A radical French Islamist who had fought in Syria is suspected of killing four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum in May.
The IS group swiftly advanced across northern and western Iraq in June, routing the Iraqi military and taking the country's second-largest city, Mosul. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.5 million have been displaced.
The plight this month of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, who fled from advancing IS militants and were trapped on a forbidding mountain range, was key to pushing Europe toward taking action. In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said close to 80,000 people are now estimated to have reached Kurdistan arriving from the Sinjar mountains.
France, Britain, Italy and Germany have stepped up humanitarian aid and are delivering dozens of tons of vital supplies to help the refugees in Iraq, including food items, drinking water and medical supplies.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was flying to Iraq over the weekend to meet with Kurdish leaders and the government in Baghdad to discuss what support is most needed.
Kurdistan, which took in tens of thousands of refugees over the past weeks, will not only need short-term humanitarian aid but also long-term support to accommodate the displaced, Steinmeier said. "This will very quickly challenge and probably overwhelm the infrastructure in Irbil and the region," he added.
In a joint statement, the EU foreign ministers also endorsed the decision by some member states "to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material" as long as it is done in concert with Iraq's central government.
Some had cautioned before the meeting that arming the Kurds could eventually strengthen their bid for independence from Iraq and see the weapons turned against Baghdad's soldiers.
Steinmeier said it was still unclear what arms the Kurds would request or get, but acknowledged there was "no decision without risk in that regard."
The Islamic State is acting "with a military force and brutality that has surprised almost everybody, worldwide," Steinmeier said.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Danica Kirka in London and Geir Moulson in Berlin also contributed.