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Seeing Iraq horror, Europe pledges aid and arms

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, August 15, 2014 - 10:12 am

BRUSSELS — The European Union on Friday sought to forge a unified response to the rapid advance of Islamic militants in Iraq and the resulting refugee crisis, with several EU nations pledging more humanitarian aid and raising the possibility of directly arming Kurdish fighters battling Sunni insurgents.

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.

"These are crises ... that are of concern to our European neighborhood, to our security and stability," said Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

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.

"All countries that believe in liberty, in human rights — all these countries are a target. Given the barbarity that we are facing, we must act with principle, values and determination," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Wednesday.

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.

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.

At the meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers were also set to decide on a joint Iraq policy regarding humanitarian aid and arms deliveries, specifically on whether European weaponry can be sent directly to Kurdish forces or would have to go through the government in Baghdad.

Back in June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the U.S. had a "special responsibility" toward Iraq, giving no indication that Germany was inclined to get involved. Even while acknowledging the need for action, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

"Everything we're experiencing there right now didn't just fall out of the sky," Gabriel said. "I think it's appropriate for the Americans to meet their responsibilities there."

Germany's reluctance has crumbled in the face of images of Iraqi families trapped between a parched mountainside and armed insurgents.

"The cynicism, the brutality, the slaughtering of people, the decapitations — all that speaks to the fact that we have to react to an extraordinary situation there," Steinmeier told ZDF television late Wednesday.