Clashes between Iraqi troops and Sunni militants west of Baghdad killed at least four children on Thursday as the United Nations announced its highest level of emergency for the Arab country's humanitarian crisis in the wake of the onslaught by the extremist Islamic State group.
Since their blitz offensive in June, the al-Qaeda-breakaway group has overrun much of Iraq's north and west and driven out hundreds of thousands from their homes. The push has displaced members of the minority Christian and Yazidi religious communities and threatened Iraqi Kurds in the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
The UN on Wednesday declared the situation in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” - a development that will trigger additional goods, funds and assets to respond to the needs of the displaced, said UN special representative Nickolay Mladenov, pointing to the “scale and complexity of the current humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Security Council also said it was backing a newly nominated premier-designate in the hope that he can swiftly form an “inclusive government” that could counter the insurgent threat, which has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the US troop withdrawal in 2011.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled the Islamic State group's advance to take refuge in the remote desert Sinjar mountain range.
The US and Iraqi military have dropped food and water supplies, and in recent days Kurds from neighbouring Syria battled to open a corridor to the mountain, allowing 45 000 to escape.
The UN said it would provide increased support to those who have escaped Sinjar and to 400 000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. Others have fled to other parts of the Kurdish region or further south.
A total of 1.5 million have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in June and quickly swept over other parts of the country.
The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions.
Fighting erupted early on Thursday in the militant-held city of Fallujah, about 65km west of Baghdad. The clashes on the city's northern outskirts killed four children, along with a woman and at least 10 militants, said Fallujah hospital director Ahmed Shami. He had no further details on clashes, beyond saying that four other children and another woman were wounded in the violence.
It was difficult to gauge the situation in Fallujah, which has been in the hands of the Islamic State since early January, when the militants seized much of the Western Anbar province along with parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Meanwhile, Iraq's central government in Baghdad continued to be mired in political turmoil, after the president nominated a Shi'a politician, Haider al-Abadi, to form the next government, putting him on track to replace embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki on Wednesday said he will not relinquish power until a federal court rules on what he called a “constitutional violation” by President Fouad Massoum.
Al-Maliki insists he should have a third term in office but he is appearing increasingly isolated as the international community lines up behind al-Abadi, who has 30 days to come up with a proposal for a Cabinet.
The UN Security Council urged al-Abadi to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country's current challenges”. - Sapa-AP