Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga, buoyed by US air strikes, reclaimed two towns from jihadist fighters Sunday, while Western powers ramped up efforts to save displaced civilians stranded on a mountain.
The third straight day of strikes by American jets and drones brought the first sign that US President Barack Obama’s decision to return to Iraq could turn the tide on two months of jihadist expansion.
“The peshmerga have liberated Makhmur and Gwer,” peshmerga spokesman Halgord Hekmat told AFP, adding that “US aerial support helped”.
Another official confirmed the Kurdish troops had recaptured the towns, which Islamic State (IS) militants had seized days earlier, bringing them within striking distance of Kurdish capital Arbil.
The past week saw jihadist fighters make dramatic gains, seizing Iraq’s largest dam, repeatedly defeating the peshmerga and taking over large swathes of land.
The air strikes which Obama announced on Thursday stopped the rot just as the militants moved close enough to the autonomous Kurdish region to cause panic in Arbil, where some US personnel are stationed.
IS attacks have displaced 200,000 people since August 3, including all the residents of Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh.
Iraq’s most prominent Christian cleric said Sunday he was disappointed at the scope of the US intervention, saying it offered little hope that jihadists would be defeated and displaced people could go home.
“The position of the American president Obama only to give military assistance to protect Arbil is disappointing,” Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako wrote in an open letter.
Also affected by IS attacks was a large contingent of Iraq’s small Yazidi minority, whose main hub Sinjar was attacked last weekend.
According to leaders and witnesses, several dozen men were executed and groups of women abducted, although reliable information from IS-held areas is scarce.
When the militants entered Sinjar, tens of thousands of people fled to the nearby mountain to hide.
Thousands were still there a week later, trying to survive in searing heat with little food or water.
– Mountain death trap –
The siege of Mount Sinjar, which local legend holds as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark, and a poignant appeal by Yazidi MP Vian Dakhil to save her community from extermination have captured the West’s attention.
Obama justified his decision to send warplanes back into Iraqi skies three years after the last troops pulled out partly because of the risk of an impending genocide.
The US intervention appeared to yield early results on that front also as officials said around 20,000 people had escaped the siege and been escorted to safety by Kurdish troops since Saturday.
“20,000 to 30,000 have managed to flee Mount Sinjar but there are still thousands on the mountain,” Dakhil told AFP. “The passage isn’t 100 percent safe. There is still a risk.”
Foreign aid groups in the region confirmed several thousand survivors of the Mount Sinjar siege had transited through Syria and crossed back into Iraq, many of them traumatised and dehydrated.
American, British and Iraqi cargo planes have been air dropping food and water over Mount Sinjar, a barren 60-kilometre (35-mile) ridge.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also visited Iraq on Sunday to oversee the delivery of France’s first aid consignment, but stressed Paris would not get involved militarily.
– ‘Broad-based government’ –
At pains to assure war-weary Americans he was not being dragged into a new Iraqi quagmire, Obama put the onus on Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government and turn the tide on jihadist expansion which has brought Iraq closer than ever to breakup.
His comments were yet another nudge for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step aside and allow for a consensus government by abandoning what looks like an increasingly desperate bid to seek a third term.
Fabius, whose country flew 18 tonnes of aid into Arbil, hammered home the same message.
“In this time, Iraq particularly needs a broad-based unity government because all Iraqis need to feel represented to wage the fight against terrorism together,” he said.
Federal Iraqi forces completely folded when IS militants launched their offensive.
The cash-strapped autonomous Kurdish region’s peshmerga force has also struggled, and turning Sunni Arabs against the jihadists is seen as the key to rolling back two months of losses.
However, there was no sense of urgency emanating from parliament Sunday as MPs who have to agree on a nomination for prime minister discussed other issues and slated the next session for August 19.
Maliki, commander in chief of the armed forces, has not spoken publicly about the US intervention, and the American air strikes are barely reported on Iraqi state television.
Obama did not give a timetable for the US military intervention, but said Saturday that Iraq’s problems would not be solved in weeks.
“This is going to be a long-term project,” he said.