Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shia militiamen backed by U.S. air strikes pressed a counterattack against Islamic State militants Monday, buoyed by breaking a weeks-long siege of a Shia town.
The military gains came as a senior United Nations human-rights official said the jihadi group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has carried out “acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale” in Iraq, and caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed the country would be the group’s “graveyard.”
The breakthrough at Amirli on Sunday was the biggest success for the Iraqi government since Islamic State-led militants overran much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June.
The United States carried out limited air strikes in the area during the operation, the first time it has expanded its more than three-week air campaign against the rebels beyond north Iraq.
Iraqi forces kept up the momentum on Monday, with Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen retaking Suleiman Beg, a town north of Amirli that had been an important militant stronghold.
“Within a few hours, we were able to clear the town completely,” the commander of the Shia Badr militia, Transport Minister Hadi al-Ameri, told Agence France-Presse in Suleiman Beg.
Fighters celebrated in the abandoned town, firing in the air, chanting anti-Islamic State slogans and showing off a captured black flag of the group.
Security forces and Shia militiamen later retook the nearby town of Yankaja from the militants, officials said.
Before the operation, the mainly Shia Turkmen residents of Amirli were endangered both because of their faith, which militants consider heresy, and their resistance to the Islamic State fighters, who had besieged the town for 11 weeks.
UN Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov had warned that they faced a “massacre.”
Mr. al-Maliki visited Amirli on Monday, vowing that “Iraq will be a graveyard” for the rebel fighters.
A convoy of militia fighters arrived in the town to a rapturous welcome of ululations and celebratory gunfire.
But scuffles also broke out among hungry residents when the fighters began to distribute food and water.
The operation to break the siege of Amirli was launched on Saturday.
The government’s reliance on Shia militiamen in this and other operations risks entrenching groups which themselves have a history of brutal sectarian killings.
The U.S. said it had launched four air strikes in the Amirli area.
In doing so, it effectively supported operations involving militia forces that previously fought against U.S. troops in Iraq.
David Petraeus, a former commander-in-chief of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, has warned against the U.S. becoming an “air force for Shiite militias.”
Meanwhile, more pledges were made to provide arms to Iraq’s Kurds, who are battling jihadis in the north and east.
Backed by U.S. air strikes, Kurdish troops have succeeded in clawing back some areas that fell last month.
The air campaign continued on Monday, with U.S. warplanes carrying out strikes against Islamic State targets in the area of the Mosul dam in northern Iraq.
Germany has announced that it will send anti-tank rocket launchers, rifles and hand grenades to support Kurdish forces.
Chancellor Angela Merkel made an impassioned 25-minute speech in support of arming the Kurds, saying: “We have the opportunity to save lives and stop the further spread of mass murder in Iraq.”
Islamic State and its allies control a large swath of northeastern Syria as well as territory in Iraq, and its rule has been marked by atrocities.
“The reports we have received reveal acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale,” deputy UN rights chief Flavia Pansieri said on Monday.
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