Iraqi Kurds say US attacks helping push back Islamic State militants
U.S. forces continued the assault on Sunni militants is northern Iraq on Sunday in a series of airstrikes near the Kurdish city of Irbil.
Kurdish authorities said the U.S. attacks had helped their forces regain effective control of several towns outside Irbil.
The four strikes conducted early Sunday successfully destroyed armed trucks used by the Islamic State to fire on Kurdish forces, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The strikes were conducted by piloted jets and unmanned drones, and the aircraft returned safely, the military said.
President Obama launched the air campaign against the Islamist militant group on Thursday, saying its siege on Irbil was a threat to U.S. personnel stationed in the Kurdish regional capital. Obama said the latest mission against what he called “barbaric terrorists” could be a long-term mission.
The president made the remarks Saturday before leaving on a nearly two-week vacation on this resort island.
The assault Sunday began at 9:15 a.m. in Iraq (11:15 p.m. Saturday Pacific time) and ended about five hours later. The four strikes destroyed three vehicles and a mortar position, the military said.
The Kurdish press hailed what it described as a shift in the momentum of the battle against extremists, attributable in part to the U.S. airstrikes.
Peshmerga forces, as Kurdish troops are known, have reportedly chased Islamic militants from the town of Gwer and also retained “effective control” of another town, Makhmour. Both are about 30 miles outside Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
U.S warplanes last week first struck Islamist militant positions near Makhmour, southwest of Irbil. The town’s seizure by the Islamic State last week had spurred fears that militants could threaten the heartland of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, whose leaders have long been major U.S. allies.
Kurdish officials were quoted in the local press as saying the capture of the area indicates that the tide is turning in favor of the Kurds.
The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken over a broad swath of the two neighboring countries, gaining support from disgruntled Sunni militants in Iraq. It has imposed its religious views on local populations, driving out Christians and other religious minorities.
The United States has made several airdrops of food and water to members of the Yazidi religious minority trapped on a mountain near their hometown of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, from which they fled the encroaching Islamic State.
France’s foreign minister, on an official visit to Baghdad, said Sunday that Paris would also provide “several tons” of aid to internally displaced people in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
Laurent Fabius called on Iraqis to form a “government of broad unity so that all Iraqis feel represented and together lead the battle against terrorism.”
Also Sunday, Pope Francis spoke out on the situation in Iraq in his weekly address to the crowd at St. Peter’s Square, describing his “dismay and disbelief” at the toll the insurgency has taken on Christians and others, and praising the humanitarian efforts to help them.
“I thank those who, with courage, are bringing succor to these brothers and sisters,” he said, according to Vatican Radio, “and I am confident that an effective political solution on both the international and the local levels may be found to stop these crimes and re-establish the [rule of] law.”
He named a Vatican envoy to go to Iraq on Monday.
Hennessey reported from Chilmark, Mass. and McDonnell from Irbil, Iraq.