BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces backed by Shiite militias Sunday broke the two-month siege of Amirli by ISIS militants and entered the northern town, officials said.
The mayor of Amirli and army officers said troops backed by militias defeated fighters from ISIS to the east of the town, as fighting continued in several villages to the north.
“Security forces and militia fighters are inside Amirli now after breaking the siege and that will definitely relieve the suffering of residents,” said Adel al-Bayati, mayor of Amirli.
It was hailed as a huge strategic victory for the Iraqi security forces and the militia who joined them after a summer that saw ISIS lead other Sunni armed groups in seizing almost one-third of the country’s territory.
“The Amirli battle is a golden victory registered by the Iraqi security forces who are still fighting the terrorist groups in north and south areas of Amirli,” military spokesman Qassim al-Attta said.
Atta described Amirli as a launching pad to retake the northern province of Salahuddin, which was captured by ISIS in June.
“The next step will be holding the ground tightly and liberating all the areas which link Amirli to Salahuddin,” Atta said on state television. “Our forces will gather in thousands in Amirli to march toward Tikrit.”
While Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. airstrikes had beaten back ISIS in recent weeks, the collection of Shiite security forces and militias had yet to score a significant military win.
The advance in Amirli comes after the U.S. military carried out airstrikes overnight on ISIS militant positions near the town and airdropped humanitarian supplies to the trapped residents. More aid was dropped from British, French and Australian planes.
The Pentagon said the warplanes hit three Humvee patrol vehicles, a tank and an armed vehicle held by militants, in addition to an ISIS checkpoint.
One Kurdish fighter in a base north of Amirli described the American role as critical in ending the siege. “It would have been absolutely impossible without the American planes,” the peshmerga fighter said. “The strikes prevented ISIS from moving freely and targeted them with 100 percent accuracy.”
Residents of Amirli expressed relief.
“I can see the tanks of the Iraqi army patrolling Amirli’s streets now. I’m very happy we got rid of the ISIS terrorists who were threatening to slaughter us,” Amir Ismael, an Amirli resident, said by phone.
Armed residents had managed to fend off attacks by ISIS fighters, who encircled the town and regarded its majority Shiite Turkmen population as apostates. More than 15,000 people had remained trapped inside Amirli.
One Shiite fighter said all militia groups were present, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Moqtada Sadr’s Peace Brigades.
“Everyone is here,” the fighter said speaking on condition of anonymity. “We came to break the siege of Amirli. We came out of humanity. When the siege of Amirli is broken we will go back to our normal lives.”
In the western city of Ramadi Sunday evening, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed Humvee military vehicle, according to police and medical officials. The blast, targeting an unfinished nine-floor building, killed 22 security personnel and 15 civilians, the officials said.