KALAK, Iraq (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqi villagers fleeing advances by Sunni militants crowded at a checkpoint on the edge of the country's Kurdish-controlled territory Thursday seeking shelter in the relative safety of the self-rule region, as Britain's top diplomat arrived in Baghdad to urge the country's leaders to unite against the insurgent threat.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague's trip follows a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier this week delivered a similar message and warned that Washington is prepared to take military action even if Baghdad delays political reforms.
The intense diplomatic push underscores the growing international concern over the gains by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
Hague called the group a "mortal threat" to Iraq that also posed a threat to others in the region, according to a statement from his office. He was due to meet Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani and other political figures later Thursday.
"The immediate priority, and the focus of my discussions today, is to help and encourage Iraqi leaders to put sectarian conflict behind them and unite across all political parties," he said.
Britain has ruled out military intervention in Iraq, but Hague said it would provide "diplomatic, counter-terrorism and humanitarian support."
An insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq on Wednesday sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave. The shelling of the a cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shiite refugees were still hoping to be let in but were facing delays because they lacked sponsors on the other side.
One of the refugees, who gave only her nickname of Umm Alaa, fearing retribution, said she and hundreds of others with her had left their village of Quba and another nearby hamlet during the militants' initial assault on June 10 to seek shelter in nearby communities that were then attacked Wednesday. Another, who agreed to be identified only named Huda, tried to calm her 10-year-old son Mohammed, who was crying of thirst.
"They will kill every Shiite man, and they will burn every Shiite house. Nobody has stayed in Quba. Every single Shiite has left," he said, echoing the fears of many interviewed Thursday.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Adrian Edwards, last week said the number of people in Iraq forced from their homes is estimated to be 1 million so far this year.
Elsewhere, pro-government forces on Wednesday battled Sunni militants threatening a major military air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, military officials said. The militants had advanced into the nearby town of Yathrib, just five kilometers (three miles) from the former U.S. base known as Camp Anaconda. The officials insisted the base was not in immediate danger of falling into the hands of the militants.
American and Iraqi military officials on Wednesday confirmed that Syrian warplanes bombed Sunni militants' positions inside Iraq, deepening the concerns that the extremist insurgency spanning the two neighboring countries could morph into an even wider regional conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned against the threat and said other nations should stay out.
Iraq's other neighbors — Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were all bolstering flights just inside their airspace to monitor the situation, said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"We've made it clear to everyone in the region that we don't need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension," Kerry said, speaking in Brussels at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations.
Meanwhile, two U.S. officials said Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq, controlling them from an airfield in Baghdad. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said they believe the drones are surveillance aircraft only, but they could not rule out that they may be armed.
A top Iraqi intelligence official said Iran was secretly supplying the Iraqi security forces with weapons, including rockets, heavy machine guns and multiple rocket launchers.
The intelligence-gathering and arms supplies come on the heels of a visit to Baghdad this month by one of Iran's most powerful generals, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, to help bolster the defenses of the Iraqi military and the Shiite militias that he has armed and trained.
The involvement of Syria and Iran in Iraq suggests a growing cooperation among the three Shiite-led governments in response to the raging Sunni insurgency. And in an unusual twist, the U.S., Iran and Syria now find themselves with an overlapping interest in stabilizing Iraq's government.
Non-Arab and mostly Shiite, Iran has been playing the role of guarantor of Shiites in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It has maintained close ties with successive Shiite-led governments since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shiites, and is also the main backer of Syria's Assad, a follower of Shiism's Alawite sect.
Reports that the Sunni militants have captured advanced weapons, tanks and Humvees from the Iraq military that have made their way into Syria, and that fighters are crossing freely from one side to the other have alarmed the Syrian government, which fears the developments could shift the balance of power in the largely stalemated fight between Assad's forces and the Sunni rebels fighting to topple him.
Al-Maliki has faced pressure, including from his onetime Shiite allies, to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
He has insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed following April elections in which his bloc won the largest share of parliament seats.
Associated Press reporters Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Lara Jakes in Brussels, Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Julie Pace and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.