WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is weighing direct military strikes to stem an Islamic militant group's gains in Iraq, as well as humanitarian relief for thousands of displaced religious minorities in the country's north, according to U.S. defense officials and others familiar with the administration's thinking.<br />
President Barack Obama met with his national security team Thursday morning to discuss the crisis as the Islamic State group made further gains. Airstrikes in particular would mark a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.<br />
Officials said Obama could announce a decision as early as Thursday. The people familiar with the administration's thinking insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.<br />
In recent days, the Islamic State militants have swept through villages in the north that are home to religious minorities including Christians and the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism. Furthering their gains, the extremists seized Iraq's largest dam Thursday, placing them in control of enormous power and water resources and access to the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad.<br />
While the White House did not publicly outline the range of options under consideration, officials said the U.S. strongly condemns the extremists' assault on minorities.<br />
"The situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "We are gravely concerned for their health and safety."
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
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