Baghdad and Washington, Reuters—T he United States carried out air strikes on Saturday against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters near the besieged Shi’ite town of Amerli in northern Iraq and airdropped humanitarian aid to civilians trapped there, the Pentagon said.
President Barack Obama authorized the new military action, broadening US operations in Iraq amid an international outcry over the threat to Amerli’s mostly ethnic Turkmen population.
US aircraft delivered over a hundred bundles of emergency supplies and more aid was dropped from British, French and Australian planes, officials said, signaling headway in Obama’s efforts to draw allies into the fight against ISIS.
Iraqi army and Kurdish forces closed in on ISIS fighters on Saturday in a push to break the Sunni militants’ siege of Amerli, which has been surrounded by the militants for more than two months.
Armed residents of Amerli have managed to fend off attacks by ISIS fighters, who regard the town’s majority Shi’ite Turkmen population as apostates. More than 15,000 people remain trapped inside.
“At the request of the government of Iraq, the United States military today airdropped humanitarian aid to the town of Amerli, home to thousands of [Shi’ite] Turkmen who have been cut off from receiving food, water, and medical supplies for two months by ISIL,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said, using an alternative name for ISIS.
“In conjunction with this airdrop, US aircraft conducted coordinated air strikes against nearby ISIL terrorists in order to support this humanitarian assistance operation,” he said, adding that a key objective was to prevent a militant attack on civilians in the town.
He said the operations would be “limited in their scope and duration” in order to protect Amerli’s population.
Warplanes hit three Humvee patrol vehicles, a tank, and an armed vehicle held by militants, in addition to a checkpoint controlled by the group, according to the military’s Central Command, which runs US operations in the Middle East. “All aircraft safely exited the area,” it said in a statement.
When Obama ordered the first air strikes and airdrops in Iraq earlier this month, he justified the military operation in part to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe for thousands of ethnic Yazidis trapped by ISIS militants on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq.
In mid-August, he declared that the militant siege there had been broken.
Earlier on Saturday, two officers said Iraqi troops, militia and Kurdish Peshmerga were advancing on Amerli from four directions.
A major in the Iraqi army, who was advancing north towards Amerli from Udhaim, said progress was slow because the militants had mined the roads. He said they were around 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the town, while those approaching from the north were just under 2 miles away.
The major said he had counted the corpses of more than 40 militants killed in Iraqi air strikes on the road between Udhaim and the village of Injana.
Also on Saturday, the Pentagon said US warplanes and armed drones had carried out five air strikes on ISIS fighters near Iraq’s largest dam, the latest in a series of attacks in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The strikes destroyed an ISIS armed vehicle, a fighting position and weapons, and damaged a building near Mosul Dam, the Pentagon said. Backed by US air power, Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic facility nearly two weeks ago.
Separately on Saturday, a suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives killed at least 11 people at a checkpoint in the town of Yusufiyah, 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Baghdad, a police officer said.
ISIS militants overran most of Sunni Arab areas of Iraq after seizing the northern city of Mosul on June 10, and have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the border with Syria, where they also control vast swaths of territory.
The lightning offensive brought the militants within range of the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region earlier this month, prompting air strikes by the United States.
The Kurds have since been slowly regaining ground from the militants and on Saturday advanced on the northern town of Zammar.
Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hikmat said control over Zammar would help the Kurds retake Rabia and Sinjar, two other areas seized by ISIS.
Violence in Iraq this year has reached levels unseen since 2006–2007, when the country was in the throes of civil war.