Iraq breaks months-long jihadist siege
A Iraqi Turkmen Shiite fighter, who volunteered to join the government forces, holds a position in Amerli - AFP

BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces broke through to the jihadist-besieged Shiite town of Amerli Sunday, where thousands of people have been trapped for more than two months with dwindling food and water supplies.

It is the biggest offensive success for the Iraqi government since militants led by the Sunni Islamic State (IS) jihadist group overran large areas of five provinces in June, sweeping security forces aside.

The breakthrough came as America carried out limited strikes outside north Iraq for the first time since its air campaign against militants began more than three weeks ago, and aircraft from several countries dropped humanitarian aid to Amerli.

The mainly Shiite Turkmen residents of the town in Salaheddin province were running desperately short of food and water, and were in danger both because of their Shiite faith, which jihadists consider heresy, and their resistance to the militants, which has drawn harsh retribution elsewhere.

“Our forces entered Amerli and broke the siege,” Iraqi security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta told AFP, an account confirmed by a local official and a fighter from the town.

“It is a very important success,” Atta later said on state television, adding that there was still fighting in the area.

The operation was launched on Saturday after days of preparations in which Iraqi security forces, Shiite militiamen and Kurdish fighters deployed for the assault and Iraqi aircraft carried out strikes against militants.

US expands air campaign

But the government’s reliance on the thousands of Shiite militiamen involved in the operation poses serious dangers for Iraq, risking entrenching groups with a history of brutal sectarian killings.

The United States announced that it carried out three air strikes in the Amerli area, expanding its air campaign outside the far north for the first time, while Australian, British, French and U.S. aircraft dropped relief supplies for the town.

“At the request of the government of Iraq, the United States military today airdropped humanitarian aid to the town of Amerli,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

“The United States Air Force delivered this aid alongside aircraft from Australia, France and the United Kingdom, who also dropped much needed supplies.”

The aid drops came alongside “coordinated air strikes against nearby (IS) terrorists in order to support this humanitarian assistance operation,” he added.

“The operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amerli,” Kirby said.

U.S. Central Command said the U.S. supplies dropped included around 47,775 liters (10,500 gallons) of drinking water and 7,000 pre-packaged meals.

Three U.S. air strikes destroyed five IS vehicles and a checkpoint.

Western aid for Amerli was slow in coming, however, with the burden of flying supplies and launching strikes in the area largely falling to Iraq’s fledging air forces.

“The U.S. military will continue to assess the effectiveness of these operations and work with the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as international partners including the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and non-government organizations to provide humanitarian assistance in Iraq as needed,” Kirby said.

Source of power

The U.S. military also launched air strikes Saturday on IS forces near Iraq’s largest dam, north of the militant-held northern city of Mosul, the Pentagon said.

Kurdish forces retook the dam after briefly losing it to the jihadists earlier this month, securing the source of much of the power and irrigation water for the region around Iraq’s second city.

The jihadist Islamic State and its allies control swathes of both northern and western Iraq and neighboring northeastern Syria where their rule has witnessed a spate of atrocities that have shocked the world.

Washington has said that operations in Syria will be needed to defeat IS, but has thus far ruled out any cooperation with the Damascus regime against the jihadists.

It has, however, attempted to enlist the support of long-time foe Tehran, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Writing in the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged “a united response led by the United States and the broadest possible coalition of nations” to combat IS.

Kerry said he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would confer with European counterparts on the sidelines of an upcoming NATO summit and then travel to the Middle East to build support “among the countries that are most directly threatened.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has acknowledged that Washington has no strategy yet to tackle IS, which has declared an Islamic “caliphate” in the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria.

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