BRUSSELS – 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. 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 the Europeans mainly considered the situation an American problem because of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion.
EU ministers pledged to step up efforts to help those fleeing advancing Islamic State militants, 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 [Islamic State] 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 and 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.
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. His departure could pave the way for a more inclusive Iraqi 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 in Iraq 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.
"It is not simply Iraq or Syria that find themselves threatened, it is the world," French President Francois Hollande said in a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Provence. "France decided to come to their aid, both humanitarian and military. And today another initiative emerged – Europe decided at last to do the same, because it is our duty. ... It is there that the future of our continent is being decided."
The IS militants' advances have brought 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. And there are fears those militants could bring their radicalism home: A radical French Islamist who had fought in Syria is suspected of killing four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum in May.
The decision to send arms to the Kurds is an attempt to deal with an immediate crisis "in a defensible way, which is relying overwhelmingly on sympathetic local forces," said Jeffrey Anderson, a Georgetown University analyst. But he added the long-term consequences could be far-reaching.
"You're strengthening the centrifugal forces within the country. You're making it more likely that what you're emerging with is not a unified Iraq," he said. "That's the price you have to pay for solving this crisis."
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 aid to the refugees in Iraq, including food, 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 nations "to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently needed 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 those European-provided weapons eventually could be used against Baghdad's own 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.