By Kristina Wong and Justin Sink - 08/07/14 11:35 AM EDT
The Obama administration is reportedly considering airstrikes on Sunni militants who have trapped tens of thousands of people on a desolate mountaintop in Iraq.
The refugees, who are mostly members of religious minority groups in Iraq, are running out of water, and officials have warned of a possible humanitarian crisis that could cost thousands of lives.
The Pentagon has already been working with Baghdad in an effort to bring in water and other supplies to the refugees, but The New York Times reported that military action is being considered.
Press secretary Josh Earnest, however, would not confirm or deny that air strikes were under consideration when he spoke with reporters on Thursday.
“I'm not in a position to shed light on the president's thinking right now,” Earnest said, adding that he could not “rule things on the table or off the table.”
Earnest said the White House was “gravely concerned” for the health and safety of the refugees, and that the United States was “working intensively with the government of Iraq” to address the crisis.
But while Earnest said the situation was “nearing a humanitarian catastrophe” and “deeply disturbing” he declined to say if addressing the situation ranked as a core U.S. interest — and thus deserving of military intervention.
“That is something we evaluate on a case by case basis,” Earnest said.
The administration has come under pressure from many lawmakers in Congress to avoid aggressive military action in Iraq despite the onslaught by the Islamie State of Iraq and Syria. Many lawmakers fear getting pulled back into Iraq so soon after the end of the Iraq war, and their reticence is matched by the public.
Most of the people trapped are Yazidis, a community whose religious beliefs mix parts of Zoroastrianism with Islam and Christianity. ISIS is known for its brutality toward followers of other religions.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told The Washington Post.
“There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by [ISIS]. It’s a disaster, a total disaster," Babille said.
An official with the Pentagon on Thursday did not say exactly what types of supplies were being delivered by the U.S., but confirmed the administration is working with Iraq.
"We have been working urgently and directly with officials in Baghdad and Erbil to coordinate Iraqi airdrops to people in need," a Defense official told The Hill.
"The Government of Iraq has initiated air drops in the region and we are in constant communication with them on how we can help coordinate additional relief, enhance their efforts, and provide direct assistance wherever possible," the official said.