IRBIL, IRAQ — The U.S. military began to conduct air strikes and air-drop humanitarian aid to a starving Iraqi town south of Kirkuk besieged by militants of the Islamic State since mid-June, according to a Pentagon spokesman late Saturday night.
The operation to support the enclave of Amirli, a small town of ethnic Turkmen Shiite considered heretics by the Islamic militants who control much of that area of Iraq, represents a major expansion of U.S. military involvement in the Iraqi crisis that began when the militants overran much of northern and central Iraq in early June.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that the request for aid came from the government of Iraq.
“The operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amirli,” he said.
American forces have conducted over 100 airstrikes in support of nearby Kurdish forces battling the well-trained and well-equipped Islamic State fighters. Previous operations had focused on protecting the Kurdish capital of Irbil, as well as supporting an operation earlier this month to help Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake Iraq’s largest dam.
U.S. forces also dropped large amounts of humanitarian aid to helping mitigate a massive crisis in the northwestern city of Sinjar as its population fled across a barren mountain range to avoid an Islamic State advance.
But Saturday’s action took place well south of the city of Kirkuk, where residents of Amirli have been holding out against the Islamic State’s siege since mid June, with very little support from the mostly ineffectual Iraq government. It has managed to provide only a small amount of aid and weapons via helicopter to the thousands of trapped people.
The latest American effort included an initial delivery of 109 bundles of fresh drinking water and 7,000 individual meals. Australia, France and the United Kingdom also participated.
The Pentagon said that it had struck four Islamic State targets in an effort to assist Kurdish forces, who have at times been reportedly supported by Iranian advisers in their push to lift the siege on the city.
Amirli’s residents fought off the initial push in June by the Islamic State _ a self declared Islamic Caliphate shunned by even al Qaida for its brutality _ but found themselves besieged in mid-July by the militants, who have blocked the town from receiving either government or United Nations aid convoys. The town lacked electricity and drinking water at the height of Iraq’s brutal summer, where temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees.
Pentagon officials stressed that the expansion of the mission in Iraq to Amirli would be limited to aiding that area and does not reflect a change in what President Barack Obama described last week _ and for which he was criticized _ as a lack of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.
The group now controls an area the size of Jordan spanning two countries and controls one of the region’s most powerful militaries after looting billions of dollars in U.S. supplied military hardware from the Iraqi army as it fled the group’s advance in mid-June.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent, reporting from Irbil, Iraq.