US air power delivers modest gains in Iraq as Yazidis flee to safety

Territorial gains by Kurdish fighters and relief for stranded Yazidis follow the first days of US military intervention in Iraq. Britain and France are also getting involved. But the Islamic State remains a potent threat. 

Ari Jalal/Reuters
Kurdish troops deploy against Islamic State militants in a village on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh (Mineveh) near the border province of Dohuk, August 9, 2014.

Backed by US air power, Kurdish peshmerga forces have regrouped in their fight against Sunni Arab militants and made modest gains in taking back territory in northern Iraq that had changed hands in recent days. 

Efforts to rescue tens of thousands of displaced minority Yazidis – whose persecution President Obama cited Thursday as a trigger for US military intervention – also progressed. Al Jazeera reported that Kurdish forces had opened up an escape route for Yazidis who took refuge on Sinjar mountain last week. Others have fled into northeast Syria, while hundreds have already reached safety in Irbil, the political capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region. 

The US and UK have airlifted food and water to displaced Yazidis. US transport planes had dropped 3,800 gallons of water and around 1,600 ready meals through Saturday, Bloomberg reported, citing the US Central Command. 

Sinjar fell last week to the self-declared Islamic State (IS), a militant group active in Syria and Iraq which has boasted of killing Yazidis and other Iraqis that it consider apostates. Obama said he was determined to check the advance of IS and to defend Irbil (Erbil), where US diplomats and soldiers are stationed. 

The US military said Sunday it had carried out five air strikes on IS positions, the heaviest bombardment so far, CNN reported. Kurdish leaders said peshmerga fighters had seized control of two towns – Makhmour and Guwair (Gweir) in Nineveh province – from IS, which controls Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.

It's unclear to what extent this and other Kurdish ground operations were coordinated with US military commanders. The New York Times reported that the first US air strikes Friday were against IS positions in Makhmour. 

The US military has sent advisers to Irbil and has longstanding ties to the peshmerga, including intelligence sharing. In the 1990s, a US-led no-fly zone over Kurdistan allowed the peshmerga to fend off Saddam Hussein's army. 

In June, the Christian Science Monitor reported that peshmerga commanders were eager for US air strikes and were ready to provide intelligence. 

“We know the locations of these fighters. We know their headquarters with their bombs and their missiles. It would be nice to have (international) troops but if not we would appreciate something from the air,” Rooz Bahjay, a senior security official of the Kurdish Regional Government, told journalists, the Monitor reported. 

Reporting today from Makhmour, the Washington Post noted that the US air strikes had reinvigorated the Kurdish forces. 

As the sound of outgoing artillery and heavy machine-gun fire rang out across the undulating fields outside Makhmour, trucks bearing fresh supplies of ammunition and SUVs carrying uniformed officers hurtled to reinforce the front lines.

Hundreds of volunteers drawn from all over the Kurdistan region also streamed toward the battle, clutching ancient rifles and wearing the ballooning pants and waistcoats traditional to Kurdish culture.

The first of the three U.S. airstrikes had taken out an Islamic State artillery position nearby, and pesh merga commanders said they sensed the militants had been chastened by the attack.

“This power they had before, this momentum — we don’t see it now,” said Col. Mohsin Avdal, who sat poring over maps on an ammunition box beside a pile of several dozen newly arrived 107mm rockets. They were delivered, he said, from stocks the pesh merga already owned.

Kurdish political leader Massoud Barzani appealed for international military aid, a sensitive point for Iraq's government in Baghdad, which fears Kurdish separatism and has tried to block direct arms deals. Mr. Barzani spoke after meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had flown from Baghdad to Irbil. 

"We are fighting a terrorist state... The weapons they possess are more advanced than what the peshmerga have," he said, the BBC reported. 

Mr. Fabius said Sunday that Iraq needed a "broad-based unity government" to confront terrorist groups, Radio France International reported. France is also sending aid to displaced civilians in northern Iraq. 

The Monitor reported Friday that Iraq's politicians had failed to meet a constitutional deadline to form a government amid fierce discord between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite lawmakers. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term, defying critics who say he must step aside if Iraq is to pull together at a time of crisis. 

Thursday’s brief parliament session descended into name calling and shouting as a Sunni member of parliament accused the government of using barrel bombs against civilians in Anbar Province. Members of Maliki's Shiite faction responded by calling Sunni lawmakers traitors.  

The session was closed to the press and Iraqi journalists, but they could hear the shouting in the cafeteria as the argument gathered steam and scrambled to see between gaps in the wall. Shiite lawmakers emerged later to speak to reporters and claim that Sunnis were undermining Iraqi security forces.

“We sense the smell of Takfiris,” said one lawmaker, referring to IS's labeling of other sects and religions as apostates.

In an analysis, the Financial Times warned that US military intervention in Iraq could backfire and end up benefitting IS, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), since it can now boast of being an adversary of the US. Its control of northeast Syria also gives it "strategic depth" to regroup against Kurdish and Iraqi forces. 

The US air strikes were described by President Barack Obama as a way to protect the self-ruled Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Erbil and Kurdish religious minorities, including Yazidis and Christians, under assault by Isis. However, even Kurds who are grateful for them acknowledge that their forces’ limited military capabilities are failing to counter Isis' sophisticated gear and tactics.

“A couple of 500-pound bombs from F-18s and a couple of drone attacks are not going to stop Isis,” Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Iraq and dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told the Financial Times. “If we’re going to say that this is all about securing Erbil, which Isis never intended [to take over], the mission is over and we can go home.”


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