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Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province, August 4, 2014. (Ari Jala/REUTERS)
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province, August 4, 2014. (Ari Jala/REUTERS)

U.S. air strikes, Kurdish forces push back Sunni militants in Iraq Add to ...

With U.S. strikes beginning to show clear effects on the battlefield, Kurdish forces counterattacked Sunni militants in northern Iraq on Sunday, regaining control of two strategic towns with aid from the air.

The U.S. air strikes, carried out by drones and fighter jets, were intended to support the Kurdish forces fighting to defend Irbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, according to a statement by the U.S. Central Command. They destroyed three military vehicles being used by the militant group, the Islamic State, and damaged others, the statement said, adding that the warplanes also destroyed a mortar position.

Reuters Aug. 09 2014, 8:16 PM EDT

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The U.S. air support encouraged the Kurdish militiamen to reverse the momentum of the recent fighting and retake al-Gweir and the other town, Makhmour, both within a half-hour’s drive of Irbil, according to General Helgurd Hikmet, head of the peshmerga’s media office.

The developments came as political tensions mounted in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on state television early Monday and defiantly redoubled his demands for a new term of office.

U.S. air power also appeared to be altering the situation at Mount Sinjar, where members of the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority have been driven into rough country by an Islamic State dragnet. Four U.S. air strikes on the extremists surrounding the mountain Saturday, along with airdrops of food, water and supplies, helped Yazidi and Kurdish fighters to beat back militant attackers and open a path for thousands of Yazidis to escape the siege. The escapees made their way Sunday through Syrian territory to Fishkhabur, an Iraqi border town under Kurdish control.

Tens of thousands more Yazidis remain trapped on the mountain, and U.S. officials cautioned that the limited air strikes alone could not open a corridor to safety for them. Neither, they said, would the U.S. air strikes be the decisive factor in the fight to stop the Islamic State.

“This is a focused effort, not a wider air campaign,” said Colonel Ed Thomas, spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. “It’s important to understand that our military objectives are limited in purpose.”

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have said that more ambitious U.S. support would be predicated on the Iraqi political leadership breaking a monthslong political deadlock and appointing a new prime minister, one who would head a more inclusive government than the Shiite-dominated administration of Mr. al-Maliki, and can reach a political settlement with Iraq’s disaffected Sunni population. But the political crisis deepened at midnight Sunday as a deadline expired for President Fouad Massoum to choose a nominee for prime minister. Mr. al-Maliki made a brief appearance on state television and angrily accused Mr. Massoum of violating the constitution by not choosing him.

“I will complain to the federal court,” Mr. al-Maliki said, adding that Mr. Massoum’s inaction “will take Iraq into a dark tunnel.”

One senior Iraqi official said Mr. al-Maliki had also positioned more tanks and extra units of special-forces soldiers loyal to him in the fortified Green Zone of government buildings in Baghdad overnight. The official said Mr. al-Maliki had “gone out of his mind, and lives on a different planet – he doesn’t appreciate the mess he has created.” A Kurdish news agency reported that presidential guards were “on high alert to protect the presidential palace,” and the capital swirled with rumors about what might happen next.

Although the U.S. air strikes have been narrow in scope, their effects were on clear display Sunday.

“For sure, the air strikes have buoyed the spirits of the fighters and the civilians, and they’re all very happy,” said Dick Naab, a retired American colonel who acts as an informal adviser to the peshmerga.

Peshmerga forces retook al-Gweir around midday, pushing through the town centre and methodically searching for snipers, stragglers and booby traps that the Islamic State may have left behind. The main threat turned out to be north of the town. In three locations just more than a kilometre apart, Islamic State fighters had concealed trucks of a type used by the Iraqi army, mounted with heavy machine guns.

According to peshmerga accounts, when those trucks emerged around 3 p.m. from hiding places in farmhouses and barns near the highway in an apparent attempt to attack the Kurds from the rear, American jet fighter-bombers streaked in and blew up the trucks with cannon fire and bombs.

“With the support of the Air Force of the United States, we are winning now,” said Taha Ahmed, a Kurdish volunteer fighter and an activist with the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Both al-Gweir and Makhmour are about 30 kilometres from Irbil, and advances by the militants last week briefly panicked residents in Irbil, which had been regarded as a safe haven. The U.S. air strikes seemed to have quickly restored confidence, with international flights into Irbil resuming after a pause, and business returning to normal.

Even so, the State Department announced Sunday that it had pulled some of its staff from the U.S. consulate in Irbil because of the security situation, relocating the personnel to Basra, in southern Iraq, and to Amman, Jordan.

Mr. al-Maliki once enjoyed U.S. support, becoming Prime Minister in 2006 largely because of backing from Washington.

Now, though, his government is buckling under the assault from the Islamic State, and much of his support among the parties representing Iraq’s Shiite majority has turned away, including some members of his own bloc, State of Law. U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes to oust him. Even so, he has continued to cling to power and seek a new term.

State of Law won the most seats in the national election in April, but not a majority, and opposing Shiite factions have been wrangling since then over whom to back. The parliament has managed to agree on a Sunni, Salim al-Jubouri, to be Speaker, and on Mr. Massoum, a Kurd, to be President, but it has not been able to elect a prime minister, the country’s dominant official.

Brett McGurk, the senior U.S. State Department official on Iraq policy, posted on Twitter that the United States “fully support President of #Iraq Fuad Masum as guarantor of the Constitution and a PM nominee who can build a national consensus.”

The political machinations in Baghdad mattered little in the north, where the Kurdish region is largely autonomous and the Kurds are fighting the Islamic State with little, if any, help from the Iraqi military.

Cheering truckloads of peshmerga fighters cruised the highway between Irbil and the battle front Sunday, and when word spread in al-Gweir about the air strikes, fighters and civilians gathered, many of them taking celebratory photographs in front of the smoldering trucks.

“Your country has saved the Kurds twice,” said Yassin Mustafa Ahmed, a farmer from al-Gweir who had fled the militant takeover, referring to the no-fly zone imposed in 1991 and the U.S. invasion in 2003. Mr. Ahmed said he had two sons and two grandsons who were with the peshmerga in al-Gweir, and two other grandsons and a cousin fighting near the Mosul Dam, which fell to the Islamic State last week. “Now you have to save us again,” he said.

U.S. military officials were uncomfortable with that view, and they cautioned Sunday that there were no plans to expand the air campaign.

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