DOHUK, Iraq - With time running out for thousands of Iraqis trapped by jihadists, caretaker premier Nuri al-Maliki Wednesday defied international pressure to step aside to forward reconciliation and the fight against militants.
The United States has carried out air strikes against members of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in the area of Mount Sinjar, where the UN refugee agency says up 20,000-30,000 people, many of them members of the Yazidi minority, are besieged.
Thousands more poured across a bridge into Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday after trekking into Syria to escape, most with nothing but the clothes they wore.
Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they arrived to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But there are still large numbers on the mountain, said 45-year-old Mahmud Bakr.
"Many of them are elderly; they cannot walk this distance," Bakr told AFP.
"My father Khalaf is 70 years old - he cannot make this journey. But up there, there is very little food and no medicine," he said.
UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak has warned they face "a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours".
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Washington is looking at options to bring the trapped civilians out.
"We will make a very rapid and critical assessment because we understand it is urgent to try to move those people off the mountains," he said.
More US military advisors
Washington has already said it would ship weapons to the cash-strapped Kurds and on Wednesday France followed in US footsteps.
"The president has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours," President Francois Hollande's office said.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States has sent 130 more military advisors to northern Iraq to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis.
A US defence official said the temporary additional personnel would also develop humanitarian assistance options beyond the current airdrop effort in support of the displaced civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Britain said it has agreed to transport military supplies for the Kurdish forces from "other contributing states".
And Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed Wednesday his country would join humanitarian airdrops in Iraq, and did not rule out the possibility of greater military involvement.