KIRKUK, Iraq: Iraq was massing forces Wednesday for an operation to break a two-month jihadist siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, amid growing fears for residents short of food and water.
The imminent counteroffensive comes amid reports that U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing a decision to authorize airstrikes and aid drops in the area to assist around 12,000 residents trapped in the northern town.
According to a civilian volunteer commander, thousands of Shiite militiamen from groups including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization are gathering in the Tuz Khurmatu area of Salahuddin province, just north of Amerli, in preparation for a battle to break the siege.
And an army lieutenant general said that security forces were mobilizing in the Jabal Hamreen area, south of Amerli, to launch an attack from the southern flank.
Iraqi aircraft have been targeting positions of ISIS jihadists around Amerli, and carried out nine strikes Tuesday, an officer said.
Time is running out for the mainly Shiite Turkmen residents of Amerli, who face danger both because of their Shiite faith, which jihadists consider heresy, and their resistance against the militants, which has drawn deadly retribution elsewhere.
There is “no possibility of evacuating them so far,” and only limited humanitarian assistance is reaching the town, said Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Iraq.
U.N. Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has called for an urgent effort to help Amerli, saying residents who have been under siege for more than two months face a “possible massacre” if it is overrun.
Residents say they are suffering from a major shortage of food and water and there is no electricity.
Dr. Ali al-Bayati, head of an Iraq-based humanitarian group called the Turkmen Saving Foundation, said that at least 15,000 civilians, including many women and children, remain trapped in Amerli without access to food or water.
He said the streets are blocked by ISIS fighters and the only way out is by air. The nearest Iraqi ground force is in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, which has seen intense clashes in recent weeks. Electricity and water are completely cut off in Amerli, according to Bayati.
Bayati said airdrops from the Iraqi military have provided residents with desperately needed staples like rice, oil and cheese, as well as weapons to help them resist ISIS. However, residents often go 10 days without any airdrops successfully reaching them.
The New York Times reported that Obama is “nearing a decision” on authorizing strikes and aid drops in the area.
Three U.S. defense officials also told AP that a humanitarian mission is under consideration. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they could not discuss internal administration deliberations by name. The timetable for a decision on whether and how to go ahead with the mission was not immediately clear.
Separately, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, met Wednesday in Baghdad with Iraq’s premier-designate, Haider al-Abadi, to discuss cooperation in the fight against ISIS, according to a statement issued by Abadi’s office. The statement said Austin expressed the U.S. government’s willingness to provide more counterterrorism training for Iraqi security forces.The U.S. has several hundred military personnel in Iraq providing security for American facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, and coordinating with Iraqi security forces.
The New York Times added that Obama is also seeking to piece together an international coalition for potential military action in Syria, where the U.S. has begun reconnaissance flights to track ISIS militants.
The U.S. focus on Syria comes after President Bashar Assad’s regime said Monday it was willing to work with the international community, including Washington, to tackle extremist fighters.
But American officials said they did not plan to coordinate with Damascus on targeting ISIS militants in Syria, despite Syrian insistence that any military action on its soil must be discussed in advance.
International concern about ISIS has been rising after a lightning offensive by the group through parts of Iraq and a string of brutal abuses, including the murder of U.S. journalist James Foley.
The U.S. began air raids against ISIS in Iraq on Aug. 8, in a bid to roll back its advances.
And nine countries have now committed to providing arms to Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga troops, who are fighting ISIS jihadists in north and east Iraq.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel put the number of countries on board at eight, while Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani said that Iran has provided arms and equipment as well, bringing the total to at least nine.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has acknowledged that ISIS cannot be defeated “without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria.”