KIRKUK, Iraq: Iraqi security forces backed by volunteer militiamen Thursday retook several villages located on the way to the town of Amerli, which jihadists have besieged for months, officers said.
Time is running out for Amerli’s Shiite Turkmen-majority residents, who face danger both because of their faith, which jihadists consider heresy, and their resistance against the militants, which has drawn deadly retribution elsewhere.
The town, besieged since militants led by the jihadist group ISIS launched a sweeping offensive in June, is without electricity and running dangerously short on both food and water.
Army Staff Lt. Gen. Abdulamir al-Zaidi told AFP that villages north of Al-Adhaim were retaken as part of a major operation aimed at advancing toward Amerli. Brig. Gen. Khalaf Jassem confirmed that the villages had been retaken, and like Zaidi put the toll for militants at more than two dozen dead.
Senior Iraqi officials and officers frequently report large militant death tolls, but they are usually impossible to independently confirm.
In addition to the Iraqi forces advancing toward Amerli from the south, a civilian volunteer commander said that thousands of Shiite militiamen from groups including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization were gathering in the Tuz Khurmatu area, north of Amerli, in preparation for a battle to break the siege.
But reliance on such groups carries risks, especially after 70 people were gunned down in a Sunni mosque Aug. 22 by suspected Shiite militia.
Officials say that Washington is weighing both aid drops and airstrikes to help the town. “It could be a humanitarian operation. It could be a military operation. It could be both,” a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity.
Iraqi aircraft are already carrying out strikes targeting the militants.
There is “no possibility of evacuating them so far,” Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Iraq, said of Amerli residents.
U.N. Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has called for an urgent effort to help Amerli, saying residents face a “possible massacre” if the town is overrun.
Separately, retreating jihadists set three wells ablaze at a northern Iraq oil field as they battled Kurdish forces who launched a major attack nearby, officials said. The ISIS jihadists set the wells on fire before deserting the Ain Zalah field, which was seized by militants in early August, an official from the North Oil Company said.
A colonel in the Kurdish forces said they had launched an attack that has seen the jihadists pushed back from several villages in the area of the oil field.
The officer and Nineveh provincial council chief Bashar al-Kiki both said that Kurdish forces had also taken control of Batana mountain, near Zumar.
Kiki said the strategic position would help the peshmerga retake the Zumar, and that the Kurdish forces are supported by U.S. airstrikes.
After the ISIS-led militants’ sweeping offensive in June they turned their sights on Kurdish forces in the north earlier this month, driving them back toward Irbil, the capital of their three-province autonomous region.