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Baird supports U.S. air strikes, but faces pleas for Iraqi assistance

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OTTAWA - The Harper government says it fully supports U.S. airstrikes against Islamic extremists in northern Iraq, but a Canadian woman just back from the embattled region says Ottawa could be doing much more on the humanitarian front.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday the federal government has not received a request for military assistance in the volatile region, but officials — including Canada's ambassador to Iraq, who is based in Jordan — will be working to determine how best to support the Iraqi people.

The government could start by helping establish — either on its own or through international channels — medical clinics at refugee camps outside the city of Irbil, said Amy Ball, a senior vice-president with DS World Sentry, an organization that provides training and assistance in conflict zones.

"I'm kind of at a loss from what to expect from Canada in this regard," said Ball, who returned from the city of 1.5 million on July 31 after trying unsuccessfully to organize the delivery of helicopters for both medevac and oil and gas use.

"The Canadian presence in Iraq has always been quite small."

American warplanes spent Friday bombing artillery positions used by the al-Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The guns and rockets were being targeted against Kurdish forces defending Irbil.

In a statement, Baird assailed the group's actions and called for political unity in Iraq, where the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have inflamed sectarian divisions.

"Canada continues to condemn the repugnant killing of innocent civilians, including women and children, from Christian, Yazidi and other religious and minority communities in northern Iraq by the terror group (ISIL)," the statement said.

"We call on Iraqi leaders to come together to govern for all Iraqis, regardless of religion, and for the sake of the security, democracy and prosperity of the Iraqi people."

Ball described Baird's statement as a "platitude" without much substance; pushing to establish clinics, either with the United Nations or by deploying Canada's military disaster response team, would be a more concrete step, she added.

The conflict has been building for months, driving as many as 400,000 refugees to seek shelter in the Kurdish dominated region around Irbil.

The Kurds had been warning of an impending crisis long before hard-line Islamic militants took over vast swaths of northern Iraq, but the international community wasn't paying attention, Ball said.

"The Kurds have been dealing with this for a year-and-a-half, saying: It's coming. It's coming, please give us the support we need," she said in an interview from St. Catharines, Ont.

"And then it comes, and everyone is shocked, and awed, and left scrambling."

The crisis could have been avoided had Kurdish forces been equipped with advanced jetfighters following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, she added.

The militants took a strategically important dam near Mosul and overran Iraq's biggest Christian town of Qaraqosh earlier this week. Published reports say ISIL militants executed dozens of men in the Yazidi religious minority community in the town of Sinjar, and kept the dead men's wives for unmarried jihadi fighters.

The United Nations says as many as 50,000 refugees from the Yazidi community were trapped on a mountain in the area before local Kurdish fighters opened a humanitarian corridor late Friday.

Prior to the relief, U.S. planes conducted airdrops of food and assistance.

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