WASHINGTON - An emerging humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq, with minority groups facing possible slaughter by Sunni Muslim extremists, has President Barack Obama considering air strikes and air drops to help get them aid.
"The latest news just might meet the threshold for action," a U.S. official told CNN amid reports of thousands of families from the Yazidi minority trapped without food, water or medical care in the summer heat after fleeing the rampaging fighters of the Islamic State, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
The Pentagon called "completely false" overseas media reports that the United States had already conducted air strikes.
A potential escalation of U.S. military involvement comes two years after Obama ended the Iraq war and brought home American forces.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that any potential U.S. action in Iraq would be limited, with no chance of ground troops heading back.
He said the principle for taking a military step would be threats to core American interests or U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Refusing to offer details on what options were being considered, Earnest described the current situation in Iraq as "disturbing," with "innocent populations persecuted just because of their ethnic identity."
Later Thursday, a Pentagon official told CNN's Barbara Starr of concerns that ISIS could make a move against the several dozen U.S. military advisers in Irbil, the largest city in Iraq's Kurdish region.
The ISIS fighters, armed with armored vehicles and other military hardware taken from Iraqi forces in a lightning sweep through the north earlier this year, have overrun Iraq's largest Christian town and nearby villages.
When radical Islamist fighters stormed the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar over the weekend, the Yazidi minority who call it home fled into the surrounding mountains in fear of their lives.
Now, trapped without food, water or medical care in the summer heat, thousands are in desperate need of help. It's already too late to save dozens of children who've died of thirst.
Other groups targeted by ISIS, which seeks to establish a Sunni caliphate stretching from Syria to Baghdad, include Shiite Muslim, Turkmen and Shabak -- all religious minorities.
Fleeing people, some in cars and trucks and others on foot, got out with whatever possessions. The United Nations estimates 200,000 people heading toward Kurdistan in the past 48 hours.
Outside Irbil, the internal refugees were sleeping in parking lots or shells of buildings under construction with little access to water or any other services, CNN's Ivan Watson reported.
Kurdish officials call for U.S. or NATO air strikes to help them fight the ISIS forces.
They also issued statements intended to boost morale of the Kurdish people, saying the Kurdish Pershmerga fighters would be able to hold off any serious threat to Erbil and other cities.
The Obama administration is talking with officials in Baghdad and Erbil and is looking at options to provide humanitarian support, including but not limited to Iraqi government air drops, according to a second U.S. official.
A senior State Department official said the United States also was weighing opening a humanitarian corridor to provide support to Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
Earnest, however, said while the United States would support Iraqi and Kurdish efforts, "we can't solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions."
The United States has 245 military personnel in Iraq, 90 of whom are advisers. The carrier USS George H.W. Bush and other Navy ships also are in the region.
Yazidis, among Iraq's smallest minorities, are of Kurdish descent, and their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect that draws from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Most of the 500,000 or so members live in and around Sinjar in northwestern Nineveh province, bordering Iraq's Kurdish region.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said Tuesday that official reports indicated 40 children from the Yazidi minority had died "as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration" since the weekend.
"Families who fled the area are in immediate need of urgent assistance, including up to 25,000 children who are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian aid including drinking water and sanitation services," it said.