British forces will make a fresh attempt to drop aid to thousands of people trapped on a mountain as they flee advancing militants in Iraq.
The move follows an aborted attempt to deliver aid to the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, which was called off when the RAF crew decided that the supplies could have injured the desperate people below.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee to discuss the crisis, said the situation was “challenging” and warned of a “potential humanitarian disaster on a huge scale”.
Downing Street also confirmed the RAF would send “a small number” of Tornado jets to the region so they can be used, if required, to improve the UK’s surveillance capability in the region to help the humanitarian effort.
The UK will also look at how it can play a role in getting equipment to Kurdish forces as they are better able to counter Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis or Isil), Number 10 added.
Barack Obama said the US had “stepped up” its support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces engaged in the fight on the ground and was continuing with its daily humanitarian efforts.
The president said: “I want to thank in particular the UK, France and other countries working with us to provide much needed assistance to the Iraqi people.”
Meanwhile, one of Britain’s most senior generals accused the “commitment-phobic” Government of being “terrified” of intervening in the Iraq crisis before next year’s general election.
General Sir Richard Shirreff told the Times “the longer we sit on our hands and prevaricate, the more dangerous the situation is going to become”.
But speaking after the Cobra committee meeting, Mr Hammond said: ” We are providing humanitarian assistance. This is not simple – getting it in is very challenging, getting people off that mountain is even more challenging.”
He rejected calls for Parliament to be recalled to discuss the crisis and said there were no plans for British military involvement. “We don’t envisage a combat role at the present time,” he said.
The next air drop of humanitarian aid in northern Iraq is likely to be carried out within the next 24 hours after RAF crews were forced to abandon their attempt to deliver supplies the previous night.
The UK has already made one successful aid flight, dropping supplies including water and solar lanterns, to Mount Sinjar, where members of the of Yazidi minority are trapped in extreme conditions after fleeing the advance of the IS forces.
David Cameron, who is on holiday in Portugal, has been urged to call MPs back from their summer break to discuss the crisis and he has also faced pressure – including from former head of the Army Lord Dannatt – to consider a military intervention.
But Mr Hammond said: “I don’t think that’s necessary at this time. W e are talking about a humanitarian intervention. We have a very clear convention about consulting Parliament before British forces are committed into any kind of combat role.
“We are not talking about that here, we are simply talking about a humanitarian action, stepping up what we are doing in order to support this community trapped on the mountain.”
Downing Street said the Prime Minister was “very much engaged” with the situation despite being abroad and a recall of Parliament was “not on the cards”.
Tory MPs Nick de Bois and David Burrowes have written to the Prime Minister urging the recall of Parliament to discuss the crises in Iraq and Gaza, while fellow Conservative Conor Burns said he wanted to send in special forces to assist Christians in Iraq.
There were further developments in the political crisis in Iraq, as the country’s new president snubbed the powerful incumbent prime minister Nouri Maliki and nominated the deputy parliament speaker Haider al-Ibadi to form the new government.
President Fouad Massoum’s decision could trigger further infighting in the country, which is already struggling to cope with the IS insurgency.
Speaking from his rented holiday home on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Mr Obama called the appointment of new prime minister Mr al-Ibadi a “promising step forward”.
He said he had called to congratulate him and urge him to form a new and inclusive cabinet as quickly as possible.
“Meanwhile I urge all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead,” Mr Obama said.