A displaced Iraqi from the Yazidi community rests after crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014
A displaced Iraqi from the Yazidi community rests after crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014 © Ahmad al-Rubaye - AFP
A displaced Iraqi from the Yazidi community rests after crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014
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Serene Assir, AFP
Last updated: August 14, 2014

Survivors of Iraq jihadist siege stream into camps

Thousands of civilians who escaped a jihadist siege streamed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq Wednesday as the West boosted efforts to assist people still trapped and arm Kurds battling to break the siege.

The United States has carried out air strikes against jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group in Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where the UN refugee agency has said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them members of the Yazidi minority, remain stranded.

Thousands poured across a 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."

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 help for those still trapped, and the United Nations declared a Level III emergency in Iraq, allowing it to speed up its response.

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.

- More US military advisers -

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.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that potential options included an airlift or ensuring a humanitarian corridor through which the Yazidis could leave the mountain.

Asked how quickly the United States wanted to act to save the Yazidis, Harf said: "As soon as possible."

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

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.

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".

- Top cleric opposes Maliki bid -

On Wednesday, the office of top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani released a July letter in which he called for incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki to be replaced, in another major blow to his bid for a third term.

"I see the need to speed up the selection of a new prime minister," said the letter to Dawa party leaders from Sistani, who is revered by millions and has enormous influence among Iraq's Shiite Arab majority.

The new premier should be someone who "has broad national acceptance and is able to work together with the political leaders of the other (ethnic and religious) components to save the country from the dangers of terrorism, sectarian war and division," Sistani said.

Maliki, who has defied growing international pressure to step aside, insisted Wednesday that it would take a federal court ruling for him to quit.

But even before the release of the Sistani letter, analysts said Maliki had lost too much backing to stay in power.

International support has poured in for Abadi, most importantly from Tehran and Washington, the two main foreign power-brokers in Iraq.

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