Further US air strikes on Islamic State militants

Fighter jets attack convoy in northern Iraq after earlier hit on artillery firing at Kurds

Displaced people who fled the violence in the province of Nineveh in Iraq, arrive at Sulaimaniya province yesterday.  Photograph: Reuters

Displaced people who fled the violence in the province of Nineveh in Iraq, arrive at Sulaimaniya province yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

The US last night carried out a second round of air strikes against Sunni militants in northern Iraq.

Officials said unmanned aircraft struck a mortar near Ibril and four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets struck a seven-vehicle convoy outside the city. The jets flew off the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier.

The attacks followed a morning strike on an Islamic State artillery gun that was firing on Kurdish troops near US personnel. It was the first significant US operation in Iraq since its forces withdrew in 2011.

Two F-18 fighters dropped 500lb laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery target near Irbil, according to a statement by rear admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

The strike followed president Barack Obama’s announcement on Thursday night that he had authorised limited air strikes to protect US citizens in Irbil and Baghdad, and, if necessary, to break the siege of tens of thousands of refugees who are stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.

“As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against Isil [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] when they threaten our personnel and facilities,” Mr Kirby said, referring to the Islamic State militants.

Kurdish officials said that the US bombs struck yesterday afternoon in and around Makhmour, a town near Irbil. They reported an air strike in the same location on Thursday, before the president’s announcement; the Pentagon denied any involvement in that attack.

Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have been hard- pressed in recent days by the militant fighters, who have seized several towns near Irbil from the Kurds and took the Mosul dam, one of the most important installations in the country. The air strike appeared intended to help stem the tide.

Russian-made rockets

“The air strikes are being led by the USA, and peshmerga are attacking with Katyusha,” said Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, referring to a type of Russian-made tactical rocket.

Many members of religious minorities in northern Iraq, including Christians, have fled to Kurdish territory to escape the advancing militants, who have imposed harsh fundamentalist rule in areas they control.

Others have been trapped and besieged by the militants, including tens of thousands of Yazidis, who follow an ancient faith linked to Zoroastrianism and are stranded in a mountainous area to the west. Delivering humanitarian aid to that group is one of the purposes of the US operations in Iraq, Obama said.

The UK, a close ally of the US, said yesterday it would not take part in military action there now but would provide humanitarian aid and technical assistance.

The leader of the Islamic State sent a defiant message to the Americans in an audio statement posted on Twitter. “I address this message to America, the holder of the Cross,” wrote the leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Listen up, those who fight on your behalf will not give you any gains in Iraq and Syria. Soon enough, you will find yourself in a direct confrontation with the sons of Islam, who have prepared themselves well for the day we will fight you.”

Strongest opponents

While Kurds welcomed Mr Obama’s announcement of US assistance, the reaction in Baghdad was mixed. “Obama’s speech did not delight Iraqis,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a leader of a main Shia bloc in Parliament, the Sadr faction, who were among the strongest opponents of US involvement. “They are looking out for their own interests, not for ours.”

Another Shia leader, Sami al-Askeri, who is close to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Mr Obama’s call for air strikes had come too late. He accused the Obama administration of being interested only in “protecting the Kurdish regional government and Christians, not the rest of Iraq”.

“Iraqis must rely on themselves and their genuine friends like Iran and Russia, who have supported Iraq in its battle against Isis,” he said, using another abbreviated translation of the Islamic State. Russia has sent Sukhoi helicopters to the Iraqi forces and Iran has trained and financed militia forces and sent advisers.

The militants’ seizure of two towns within 20 miles of Irbil, which serves as the Kurdish capital, precipitated panic in the capital and the beginnings of an exodus to Sulaimaniya, the largest city to the north.

– (New York Times service. Additional reporting by PA)