Iraqi forces launched a ground operation Saturday to break a nearly three-month siege of a town encircled by Islamic State extremists as residents reported a delivery of humanitarian aid by what was widely described as a U.S. military cargo plane.
Pentagon officials did not immediately confirm that they had carried out the airdrop in Amerli, which would mark an expansion – albeit limited – of the American air campaign in Iraq. Residents said that several large crates of badly needed food, including biscuits, baby formula, fruit drinks and dates, were dropped by parachute, unlike previous relief deliveries by Iraqi forces whose helicopters have landed in town.
The fresh aid and military offensive cheered residents of Amerli, a farming community of 15,000 populated mainly by ethnic Turkmen Shiite Muslims, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. Surrounded by Sunni Arab militants since June, its water and electricity have been cut off, food and medical supplies are running low and at least 10 people have died due to fighting and illness, residents said.
“This is good news for us,” Nihad Bayati, an engineer and father of seven, said by telephone from Amerli. “We have been fighting as long as we can but we need help.”
United Nations officials have warned of a “massacre” in Amerli because the Islamic State extremists view Shiites as apostates and have brutally targeted Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen minority. Amerli police officers and volunteer fighters have been defending themselves with light weapons against near-daily mortar rounds and sniper attacks.
For days, Iraqi forces and pro-government Shiite militiamen have been massing in the nearby town of Tuz Khurmato in preparation for a ground assault. The operation began Saturday morning as the ground forces pushed toward Amerli from the north, east and west, with residents reporting loud firing that some described as tank rounds.
A day earlier, activists reported an increase in airstrikes that some said came from U.S. warplanes. The Pentagon did not comment on the reports, saying only that it had conducted airstrikes near the northern Mosul dam, where it has targeted Islamic State forces for two weeks.
The United States has come under growing pressure to aid Amerli, especially after carrying out airstrikes this month to help Iraqi Yazidis, a small religious minority, escape a remote northern mountain where they had sought refuge from advancing militants. Some Shiite politicians and activists accused the White House of bias in favor of the Yazidis, non-Muslim members of Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority, which has long enjoyed good relations with Washington.
“We want to see the U.S. government acting for justice,” said Ali Bayati, a doctor in Amerli, many of whose residents are distant relatives from the Bayati tribe. “The Yazidis are like us. America should deal with Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, all Iraqis in the same manner.”
The plight of Iraq’s Turkmen minority, which makes up about 4% of the population, has been overshadowed by the militants’ attacks against Yazidis, Christians and other groups. After Islamic State fighters overran the northern city of Mosul in early June, half a million Turkmen are believed to have fled their homes.
Some who didn’t escape were killed, their bodies strung from electrical wires, according to activists.
After the militants seized the northern city of Mosul in early June, the militants moved to within a half-mile of Amerli but could not get closer. Surrounded by mostly Sunni Arab villages, many Amerli residents keep weapons at home for protection – particularly after a 2007 bombing by Sunni extremists left 130 people dead.
Local police, the only trained security force in town, have set up a perimeter around the area, backed by volunteer fighters and gunmen posted on rooftops.
The Iraqi military has sent helicopters into Amerli a few times weekly to deliver food, ammunition and weapons such as Kalashnikov rifles. But the residents said the supplies were insufficient. Some developed heat-related illnesses due to the extreme temperatures and stomach and kidney ailments from drinking untreated water.
©2014 the Los Angeles Times
Distributed by MCT Information Services