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President Obama has authorized air strikes on Iraq to protect Christians and prevent "genocide" of tens of thousands of members of an ancient sect sheltering on a desert mountaintop from Islamic State fighters threatening to exterminate them.
In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralyzed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi'ite cleric all but ordered Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.
The United States began to drop relief supplies to refugees from the ancient Yazidi sect, but there was no sign yet of air strikes, which Obama authorized for the first time since pulling troops out in 2011.
Sunni fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida offshoot bent on establishing a caliphate and eradicating unbelievers, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops defending an autonomous region in the north.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other minorities have fled from ISIS fighters who have beheaded and crucified some of their captives and broadcast the killings on the Internet.
The retreat of the Kurds has brought the Islamists to within a half hour's drive of Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region and a hub for U.S. and European oil companies who have ordered emergency evacuations of their staff.
"Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, 'There is no one coming to help'," said Obama in a late night TV address to the nation on Thursday. "Well, today America is coming to help."
"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide," he said.
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.
Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist whose foes accuse him of fueling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarizing figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old scholar whose word is law for millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and beyond, has repeatedly pushed for politicians to break the deadlock and reunify the country.
His weekly sermon on Friday, read out by an aide, was his clearest call for Maliki to go. Though he did not mention Maliki by name, he said politicians who cling to posts were making a "grave mistake", and leaders must choose a prime minister to end the security crisis.
Oil Companies Evacuate
Last month, Shi'ite militia and government troops halted the advance of the Islamic State fighters north of Baghdad and on the capitals western and southern ramparts.
Over the past week, the fighters—deploying heavy weapons they seized from fleeing government troops and flush with looted funds—turned against the Kurds, who have ruled themselves in comparative peace in three mountainous northern provinces while the rest of Iraq was torn by a decade of sectarian bloodshed.
Reuters photographs on Thursday showed the insurgents had raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45 km (28 miles) from Arbil, a city of 1.5 million which became an oil boomtown when the rest of Iraq was often too dangerous for foreign staff.
U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron evacuated expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan on Thursday, industry sources said. Smaller oil companies that operate in Kurdistan also evacuated staff and cut back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on Thursday and Friday.
The Islamists' lightning offensive and the threat of U.S. military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets such as gold and German government bonds.
Attention has focused on the plights of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq, which has been one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.
Advancing Islamic State fighters have filmed themselves massacring prisoners. Churches and Shi'ite mosques have been destroyed. Some victims have been crucified, beheaded or dismembered.
Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism, are among a handful of pre-Islamic minority groups who survived for centuries in northern Iraq.
They are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, most living in a small area of northern Iraq, with small communities scattered in the Caucasus and Europe. Islamic State fighters consider them "devil worshippers."
The U.S. Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar.
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