Hundreds of Iraqi villagers fleeing advances by Sunni militants crowded at a checkpoint on the edge of the country's Kurdish-controlled territory Thursday to seek shelter in the relative safety of the self-ruled region, as Britain's top diplomat arrived in Baghdad to urge the country's leaders to unite against the insurgent threat.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague's trip follows a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier this week delivered a similar message and warned that Washington is prepared to take military action, even if Baghdad delays political reforms.
The intense diplomatic push underscores growing international concern over gains by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Sunni group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
Hague called the group a "mortal threat" to Iraq that also posed a threat to others in the region, according to a statement from his office. He was due to meet Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani and other political figures later in the day.
"The immediate priority, and the focus of my discussions today, is to help and encourage Iraqi leaders to put sectarian conflict behind them and unite across all political parties," he said.
Britain has ruled out military intervention in Iraq, but Hague said it would provide "diplomatic, counterterrorism and humanitarian support."
An artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq on Wednesday sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave. The shelling of the cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shia refugees were still hoping to be let across the border but were facing delays because they lacked sponsors on the other side.
One of the refugees, who gave only her nickname of Umm Alaa, fearing retribution, said she and hundreds of others with her had left their village of Quba and another nearby hamlet during ISIL’s initial assault on June 10 to seek shelter in nearby communities that were then attacked Wednesday. Another, who agreed to be identified only by Huda, tried to calm her 10-year-old son Mohammed, who was crying from thirst.
"They will kill every Shia man, and they will burn every Shia house. Nobody has stayed in Quba. Every single Shia has left," he said, echoing the fears of many interviewed Thursday.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Adrian Edwards, last week said the number of people in Iraq forced from their homes is estimated to be 1 million so far this year.
Elsewhere, pro-government forces on Wednesday battled Sunni armed groups threatening a major military air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, military officials said. The Sunnis had advanced into the nearby town of Yathrib, just 3 miles from the former U.S. base known as Camp Anaconda. The officials insisted the base was not in immediate danger of falling into the hands of the armed groups.
U.S. and Iraqi military officials on Wednesday confirmed that Syrian warplanes had bombed Sunni groups’ positions inside Iraq, deepening concerns that the insurgency spanning the two neighboring countries could morph into an even wider regional conflict. Kerry warned against the threat and said other nations should stay out.