The European Union on Friday forged a unified response to the rapid advance of Islamic militants in Iraq and the resulting refugee crisis, allowing direct arms deliveries to Kurdish fighters battling the Sunni insurgents, while several EU nations pledged more humanitarian aid.
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.
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Security Council targets Islamists
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council took aim at Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria on Friday, blacklisting six people including the Islamic State spokesman and threatening sanctions against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the insurgents.
The 15-member council unanimously adopted a resolution that aims to weaken the Islamic State and Syria's Nusra Front.
Islamic State has long been blacklisted by the Security Council, while Nusra Front was added earlier this year. Both groups are designated under the UN Al-Qaida sanctions regime.
Friday's resolution named six people who will be subject to an international travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo, including Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, an Iraqi described by U.N. experts as one of the group's "most influential emirs" and close to its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The Security Council resolution "deplores and condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist acts of ISIL (Islamic State) and its violent extremist ideology, and its continued gross, systematic and widespread abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law."
It also blacklisted Said Arif, a former Algerian army officer who escaped house arrest in France in 2013 and joined Nusra Front in Syria, and Abdul Mohsen Abdallah Ibrahim al-Charekh of Saudi Arabia, dubbed "a leading terrorist internet propagandist" who heads Nusra Front in Syria's Latakia district.
Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali and Hajjaj bin Fahd al-Ajmi, both from Kuwait, were sanctioned for allegedly providing financial support to Nusra Front - Ajmi's fundraising includes at least one Twitter campaign, according U.N. experts - while Abdelrahman Mouhamad Zafir al Dabidi al Jahani of Saudi Arabia was named because he runs Nusra Front's foreign fighter networks.
Britain initially aimed to adopt the text by the end of August, but accelerated its plan after a surge by Islamic State, which poses the biggest threat to Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The resolution condemns the recruitment of foreign fighters and expresses readiness to blacklist people financing or facilitating travel of foreign fighters. It expresses concern that revenue generated from oilfields captured by both groups is being used to organize attacks.
Islamic State militants are selling oil from oilfields in Iraq and refineries they control to local communities and smugglers, augmenting their existing ample finances, U.S. intelligence officials said on Thursday.
The resolution condemns any direct or indirect trade with Islamic State or Nusra Front and warns such moves could lead to sanctions. It asks UN experts - charged with monitoring violations of the council's al Qaeda sanctions regime - to report in 90 days on the threat posed by Islamic State and Nusra Front, and on details of their recruitment and funding.
The resolution is under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which makes it legally binding for UN member states and gives
'A threat that can reach the heart of Europe'
Europe's initiative came as Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step down after weeks of insisting on a third four-year term, a move that could pave the way for a more inclusive government and strengthen Baghdad's position in battling the Sunni insurgency.
A veteran Shiite lawmaker, Haider al-Abadi, now faces the challenge of forming a stable government and engaging Sunni politicians who say their disenfranchisement under al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government fueled support for the insurgency among the Sunni minority.
The EU foreign ministers called on al-Abadi to urgently form a government that will be "inclusive and able to address the needs and legitimate aspirations of all the Iraqi citizens." U.S. and EU officials have said they can beef up their support for Iraq once a stable government is in place.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, meanwhile, insisted the militants' advances in Syria and Iraq represent a "threat that can reach the heart of Europe," making it not only a moral responsibility but also a matter of "national interest" to help keep IS at bay.
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.
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. In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said close to 80,000 people are now estimated to have reached Kurdistan arriving from the Sinjar mountains.
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.
Kurdistan, which took in tens of thousands of refugees over the past weeks, will not only need short-term humanitarian aid but also long-term support to accommodate the displaced, Steinmeier said. "This will very quickly challenge and probably overwhelm the infrastructure in Irbil and the region," he added.
In a joint statement, the EU foreign ministers also endorsed the decision by some member states "to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material" as long as it is done in concert with Iraq's central government.
Some had cautioned before the meeting that arming the Kurds could eventually strengthen their bid for independence from Iraq and see the weapons turned against Baghdad's soldiers.
Steinmeier said it was still unclear what arms the Kurds would request or get, but acknowledged there was "no decision without risk in that regard."
The Islamic State is acting "with a military force and brutality that has surprised almost everybody, worldwide," Steinmeier said.