KHAZER CAMP, Iraq (AP)
President Barack Obama justified the U.S. military's return to fighting in Iraq Saturday by saying America must act now to prevent genocide, protect its diplomats and provide humanitarian aid to refugees trapped by Islamic militants on a mountain ridge near the Syrian border.
"This is going to be a long-term project" that won't end and can't succeed unless Iraqis form an inclusive government in Baghdad capable of keeping the country from breaking apart, Obama said at the White House.
Obama spoke after airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets and a drone killed several small groups of Islamic State extremists that were attacking Kurdish forces and refugees. The military support helped clear the way for aid flights to drop food and water to thousands of starving refugees.
But the help comes too late for many of the religious minorities targeted for elimination by the Islamic State group, which swept past U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi government forces in recent weeks and now controls much of Iraq.
A delayed response by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad left Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Sunni extremists' advances. With nowhere to go but uphill, Kurdish-speaking Yazidi refugees sought shelter in the mile-high Sinjar mountains, where their ancient religion holds that Noah's ark came to rest.
U.S., Iraqi and British cargo planes dropped tons of food, water, tents and other equipment to the refugees Friday and Saturday. Iraq's defense ministry released a video showing people in the Sinjar mountains rushing to collect food and water as the Iraqi government's fleet of C130 cargo planes dropped 20 tons of aid at a time.
But at least 56 children have died of dehydration in the mountains, UNICEF's spokesman in Iraq, Karim Elkorany, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
British officials estimated Saturday between 50,000 and 150,000 people could be trapped on the mountain.
And Juan Mohammed, a local government spokesman in the Syrian city of Qamishli, told the AP that more than 20,000 starving Yazidis are fleeing across the border, braving gunfire through a tenuous "safe passage" that Kurdish peshmerga forces are trying to protect.
Some women lost their children along the way because of exhaustion and fear, and at least nine Kurdish fighters were killed while defending the columns of refugees, Mohammed said.
"They are barefoot, tired and left everything behind" in Iraq, Mohammed said. Without significant help soon, those who haven't crossed yet "will be subjected to genocide."