IRBIL, Iraq – The U.S. launched a new airdrop Saturday to aid thousands of members of an Iraqi minority group who fled from Islamic extremists, as Iraq’s foreign minister said U.S. airstrikes have helped Kurdish forces counter the militants’ advance.
An American military team is currently in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil, working to ensure tactical coordination with Kurdish peshmerga forces, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told a press conference late Friday.
“Airstrikes are intended to degrade the terrorists’ capabilities and achieve strategic gains – and have been very effective,” Zebari, a Kurd, said.
The airstrikes marked the first time U.S. forces have directly targeted the Islamic State group and the first tentative military engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.
Many of America’s allies backed the U.S. intervention, pledging urgent steps to assist the legions of refugees and displaced people. Those in jeopardy included thousands of members of the Yazidi minority whose plight – trapped on a mountaintop by the militants – prompted the U.S. to airdrop dozens of crates of food and water.
The extremists have captured hundreds of Yazidi women, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians fled in fear as the militants seized a string of northern towns and villages in recent days.
Yazidis belong to ancient religion seen by the Islamic State group as heretical. The extremist group considers Shiite Muslims apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
American planes conducted a second airdrop of food and water early Saturday for those trapped in the Sinjar mountains, said Pentagon chief spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Escorted by two Navy fighter jets, three planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies for the refugees, including more than 28,000 meals and more than 1,500 gallons of water, said Kirby, who spoke from New Delhi during a trip with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry meanwhile said hundreds of Yazidi women had been seized by the militants. Citing reports from the victims’ families, he said some of the women were being held in schools in Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State group in June.
“We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them,” Kamil Amin told The Associated Press.
The U.S. military, which withdrew its forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war, returned to battle when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it outside Irbil on Friday.
The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, which is home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.
Later Friday, the U.S. launched a second round of airstrikes near Irbil, U.S. officials said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the strikes publicly, said four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy while unmanned aircraft hit a mortar launcher.
Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, the militants have captured a string of towns and Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks. Ethnic and religious minorities, fearing persecution and slaughter, have fled in growing numbers.
According to the U.N., more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, bringing the total this year to well over 1 million.
The Islamic State group captured Mosul in June, and then launched a blitz toward the south, sweeping over Sunni-majority towns almost to the capital, Baghdad. It already holds large parts of western Iraq, as well as swaths of neighboring Syria.
Iraqi government forces crumbled in the face of the assault but have since been able to prevent the militants from advancing into Shiite-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defense against the radicals, but their fighters are stretched over a long front trying to fend them off.
Two Gulf-based airlines said Saturday they have re-routed flights over Iraq because of the deteriorating security situation, as Turkish Airlines said it has resumed flights to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways and Bahrain’s Gulf Air announced their decisions after a similar move by Dubai-based Emirates, the Middle East’s largest carrier. On Friday the Obama administration ordered U.S. airlines not to fly over Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government released a statement Saturday saying that militants have been unable to target oil operations in the Kurdish region, and that production remains unaffected by the current crisis.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Josh Lederman in Washington, Danica Kirka in London, Caleb Jones in New York, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad, and Lolita C. Baldor in New Delhi contributed to this report.