BAGHDAD/AMIRLI: Iraqi government forces made more progress Tuesday in their fightback against jihadists, even as anger boiled over in Baghdad, where protesters stormed parliament over the fate of missing soldiers who surrendered in June. After breaking a monthslong jihadist siege of the Shiite Turkmen-majority town of Amirli by ISIS fighters, troops also regained control of part of a key highway linking Baghdad to the north.
Two towns north of Amirli were already taken from the jihadists Monday as Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, won their first major victories since the army’s collapse across much of the north in June.
Assistance is now arriving in Amirli, brought in both by fighters and the United Nations, which said Tuesday it had “delivered 45 metric tons of life-saving supplies.” As an aid truck arrived, one man who had fought to defend Amirli said it was the first time he had seen grapes in months.
The siege took a heavy toll on residents, including Umm Ahmed, who lost her husband and 10-year-old son to a mortar round, leaving her to raise their three daughters, the oldest of whom is 8. There was “no food and no water to drink, and the children and the elderly were dying,” she said.
A day after seizing Amirli, troops and Shiite militiamen Monday retook Sulaiman Bek and Yankaja, two towns to its north that had been important militant strongholds.
Army Staff Lt. Gen. Abdulamir al-Zaidi said they continued the advance Tuesday, regaining control of a stretch of the main highway to northern Iraq that had been closed by the militants for almost three months.
“The way from Baghdad to Kirkuk has become secure,” said the commander of the Shiite Badr militia, Transport Minister Hadi al-Ameri.
The U.S. said it launched four airstrikes in the Amirli area, meaning it effectively supported operations involving militia forces that previously fought against U.S. troops in Iraq.
The June collapse of Iraqi forces against ISIS-led insurgents left some 1,700 soldiers who surrendered in jihadist hands, with many believed to have been executed.
In the capital, more than 100 relatives of the soldiers broke into parliament armed with sticks, metal bars and stones to demand news of them, witnesses said.
The crowd, mostly from the country’s Shiiite majority, smashed equipment, assaulted at least two staff members they mistook for lawmakers and refused to leave the building, officials inside said.
“They were ready to bulldoze anyone standing in front of them. They were saying ‘Our sons are buried in the dust. We don’t even know their names, and you are sitting here in comfort under the air conditioning,’” a parliament employee said.
“A special forces unit came to remove them from the parliament,” the employee said.
Eventually, the security forces and parliament officials calmed the protesters and told them there would be a special session on their missing relatives Wednesday. The demonstrators were then housed at a nearby hotel so their representatives could attend the coming session, according to a parliament employee.
The soldiers in question had walked out of their base in Tikrit, north of the capital, believing a truce had been brokered with the militants. Instead, ISIS fighters took them and later reported they had killed 1,700 soldiers, posting pictures of corpses online.
There have been no independent reports on how many died. Locals in Tikrit said in June they believed the number was in the hundreds.
The relatives had been scheduled to address parliament. But they started to violently protest outside the building and then forced their way inside past several checkpoints, according to parliament employees.
“They broke into parliament. They roughed up some guards and officials,” another witness said.
Some lawmakers fled, leaving briefcases and jackets behind, one civil servant said.