BAGHDAD, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Islamic State militants have killed at least 500 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves, an Iraqi government minister told Reuters on Sunday.
Human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused the Sunni Muslim insurgents - who have ordered the community they regard as "devil worshippers" to convert to Islam or die - of celebrating a "a vicious atrocity" with cheers and weapons waved in the air. No independent confirmation was available.
Islamic State's advance through northern Iraq has forced tens of thousands to flee, threatened the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region and provoked the first U.S. air strikes in the area since Washington withdrew troops from Iraq in late 2011.
Sudani said in a telephone interview that news of the killings had come from people who had escaped town of Sinjar, an ancient home of the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking community whose religion has set them apart from Muslims and other faiths.
"We have striking evidence obtained from Yazidis fleeing Sinjar and some who escaped death, and also crime scene images that show indisputably that the gangs of the Islamic State have executed at least 500 Yazidis after seizing Sinjar," he said
"Some of the victims, including women and children were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar."
President Barack Obama said on Saturday that U.S. air strikes had destroyed arms that the Islamic State, which has captured swathes of northern Iraq since June, could have used against the Iraqi Kurds. However, he warned that there was no quick fix for the crisis that threatens to tear Iraq apart.
Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani urged his allies to send arms to help his forces hold off the militants, who have bases across the Syrian border. During a visit by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Barzani said: "We are not fighting a terrorist organization, we are fighting a terrorist state."
In comments likely to put pressure on Washington to step up its response to Islamic State, Iraqi rights minister Sudani said: "The terrorist Islamic State has also taken at least 300 Yazidi women as slaves and locked some of them inside a police station in Sinjar and transferred others to the town of Tal Afar. We are afraid they will take them outside the country.
"In some of the images we have obtained there are lines of dead Yazidis who have been shot in the head while the Islamic State fighters cheer and wave their weapons over the corpses," he added. "This is a vicious atrocity."
A deadline passed at midday on Sunday for 300 families from the Yazidi community - followers of a religion influenced by the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia - to convert to Islam or die. It was not immediately clear if the victims to whom the minister referred were from that group of families.
U.S. military aircraft have dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis who have collected on the desert top of nearby Mount Sinjar, seeking shelter from the insurgents.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis held a silent prayer for victims of the Iraqi conflict, who include members of the Christian minority, during his weekly address on Sunday.
"Thousands of people, among them many Christians, banished brutally from their houses, children dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds," he said.
"All of this deeply offends God and deeply offends humanity."
Speaking before U.S. warplanes struck militant targets for a second day on Saturday, Obama said it would take more than bombs to restore stability, and criticized Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government for failing to share power with Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated before the U.S. invasion.
France joined the calls for Iraq's feuding leaders to form an inclusive government capable of countering the militants. "Iraq is in need of a broad unity government, and all Iraqis should feel that they are represented in this government," Foreign Minister Fabius said.
"All Iraqis should feel they are represented to take part in this battle against terrorism," he told a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad.
Maliki's critics say his sectarian agenda has prompted heavily armed Sunni tribes to join the insurgency. But Maliki, serving in a caretaker capacity since an inconclusive election in April, has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds, fellow Shi'ites, regional power broker Iran and Iraq's top cleric to step aside for a less divisive leader.
The pressure from France came a day after Obama described the upheaval in the north as a "wake-up call" to Iraqis who have slipped back into sectarian bloodshed not seen since a civil war peaked in 2006-2007.
Nearly every day police report kidnappings, bombings and execution-style killings in many cities, towns and villages.
The Islamic State, which sees Shi'ites as infidels who deserve to be killed, has met little resistance. Thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers fled when its Arab and foreign fighters swept through northern Iraq from eastern Syria in June.
The collapse of the Iraqi army prompted Kurds and Shi'ite militias to step in, with limited success.
The Sunni militants routed Kurds in their latest advance with tanks, artillery, mortars and vehicles seized from fleeing Iraqi troops, calling into question the Kurds' reputation as fearsome warriors.
A former head of German intelligence echoed the Kurdish plea for arms: "The Kurds are hopelessly outgunned," August Hanning told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Iranian-trained Shi'ite militias may stand a better chance than the Kurds but they are accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis, playing into the hands of the Islamic State, which also controls a large chunk of western Iraq.
After hammering Kurdish forces last week, the militants are just 30 minutes' drive from Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, which until now has been spared the sectarian bloodshed that has scarred other parts of Iraq for a decade.
The possibility of an attack on Arbil has prompted foreigners working for oil companies to leave the city and Kurds to stock up on AK-47 assault rifles at the arms bazaar.
In their latest sweep through the north, the Sunni insurgents routed Kurdish forces and seized a fifth oil field, several more villages and the biggest dam in Iraq - which could give them the ability to flood cities or cut off water and power supplies - hoisting their black flags up along the way.
After spending more than $2 trillion on its war in Iraq and losing thousands of soldiers, the United States must now find ways to tackle a group that is even more hardline than al-Qaeda and has threatened to march on Baghdad. (Addiornal reporting by Isla Binnie in Rome; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by David Stamp and Alastair Macdonald)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/16/2014 6:17 PM EDT
US Military: Fighters, Drone Aircraft Strike Militants In N Iraq
BREAKING: US military: Fighters, drone aircraft strike militants near Irbil and Mosul Dam in Iraq— The Associated Press (@AP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 6:07 PM EDT
Kurdish Officials Say 300 Killed In Friday 'Massacre'
Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.
.4/ 1000 women were taken as prisoners by #IS split into 2 groups. The "pretty incl gilrs aged btwn 10-11 and the others.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 5:57 PM EDT
British PM: Islamic State Militants Could Target UK
Islamic State militants in Iraq could grow strong enough to target the UK unless action is taken - PM David Cameron http://t.co/k2i5CjTm2S— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 4:49 PM EDT
NYT Correspondent Recounts Iraq Helicopter Crash
New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.
Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.
Read her moving account on The New York Times here.
08/16/2014 2:23 PM EDT
Iraq Refugees Learn Of Yazidi Massacre
The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Watch the BBC report here.
08/16/2014 1:03 PM EDT
U.S. Provides Air Support To Kurdish Offensive
Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.
More from AFP:
Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.
"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
08/16/2014 12:54 PM EDT
The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.
Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.
But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.
"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.
08/16/2014 11:38 AM EDT
U.S.-Backed Kurds Attempt To Recapture Mosul Dam
#BREAKING: US-backed Kurds in bid to retake Iraq's largest dam: general— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 11:14 AM EDT
Airstrikes Target Islamic State After Reports Of Yazidi Massacre
Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
08/15/2014 6:31 PM EDT
U.S. May Speed Up Aid To Iraq Despite Billions Already Spent
The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.
Read the full story here.