BAGHDAD: Iraq's outgoing prime minister traveled to a small northern Shiite town Monday, praising its residents for fending off attacks by Sunni militants who had besieged them for more than two months until security forces backed by Iran-allied Shiite militias and U.S. airstrikes broke the siege a day earlier.
Jubilant security forces, Shiite fighters and residents of Amirli greeted Nouri al-Maliki with hugs and Shiite slogans when he arrived in the town, where some 15,000 Shiite Turkmens had been stranded.
In footage aired on state TV, Maliki was shown sitting at a wooden desk in front of a large poster of Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistsani, ordering promotions and awards for forces who took part in ending the siege.
"I salute you for your steadfastness and patience against those beasts and killers," he told a gathering of fighters in the large hall, as they chanted Shiite religious slogans.
Hours before the visit, aid began to flow to the town.
Ali al-Bayati, who heads local NGO the Turkmen Saving Foundation, said that four trucks loaded with foodstuffs, medicine and fruit had entered the town. The aid was sent by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Red Crescent, he said, adding that soldiers had begun bringing food to families in their houses Sunday night.
"The situation is getting back to normal, but gradually," Bayati told The Associated Press. "Some people have come out from their houses and walk in the street. Shops are still closed, but people are happy to see their city secured by Iraqi security forces," he added.
Since early this year, Iraq has faced a growing Sunni insurgency led by an Al-Qaeda-breakaway group, ISIS, and allied militants have taken over territory in the country's north and west. The crisis is Iraq's worst since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A summer offensive stunned Iraqi security forces and the military, which melted away and withdrew as ISIS overran the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June, as well as small towns and villages on their path.
Since then, Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias have been fighting the militants without achieving significant progress on the ground.
Thousands of fighters from Iranian-backed Shiite militias have answered a call by Sistani to join government forces in the fight against the Sunni insurgents.
The U.S. airstrikes that helped liberate Amirli were the first to hit areas where the Iranian-backed militias fought Sunni militants, possibly outlining an unlikely alliance between the U.S. and Shiite militiamen who once fought American soldiers in Iraq.
It also means the strikes supported forces backed by Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard military advisers have been guiding Shiite militiamen in artillery attacks on Sunni positions.
Since August 8, the U.S. has carried out at least 120 airstrikes with aircraft and unmanned drones. It has focused on areas bordering the self-ruled northern Kurdish region where Kurdish forces have been fighting the militants.
Also Monday, the United Nations said that at least 1,420 Iraqis were reported killed in violence in August, down from the previous month.
The U.N. mission to Iraq, known as UNAMI, said in its monthly statement that the death toll includes 1,265 civilians and 155 members of Iraq's security forces. It added that 1,370 were wounded, including 1,198 civilians.
July's death toll stood at 1,737 people. In June, 2,400 were killed as Sunni militants swept across the country, the highest figure since at least April 2005.
The statement said the figures are the "absolute minimum" number of casualties and they do not include deaths in the western Anbar province or other parts of northern Iraq that have been held by militants for months. It added: "The actual figures could be significantly higher."