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US Airstrikes Hit Militants' Vehicles Near Sinjar, Iraq

  • Henry Ridgwell

U.S. military officials say drone strikes against Islamic State insurgents have destroyed two armed vehicles south of the Iraqi town of Sinjar.

The U.S. Central Command said in a statement Friday the strike was ordered after it had received reports from Kurdish forces that Islamic State terrorists were attacking civilians in the village of Kawju, located south of the village of Sinjar.

Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers on Friday approved sending weapons to Iraq’s embattled Kurds, as Kurdish forces, bolstered by U.S. air strikes, struggle to push back against advancing Islamic State militants.

U.S. airstrikes and aid drops by the U.S., Britain and others have eased fears of a humanitarian emergency among some ethnic groups who have sought refuge from Islamic militants on Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq.

Aid agencies have begun scaling up humanitarian operations in response to a recent U.N. declaration that the flood of refugees displaced by the militant onslaught has reached crisis proportions. Officials estimate around 1.2 million people have fled their homes this year.

As France moved to send weaponry to Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga and Britain joined the U.S. in dropping aid to Yazidi refugees, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels gave unanimous approval for individual EU states to send weapons to peshmerga forces.

“The conclusions of the [European] Council today will show the commitment of European countries to pushing back against the threat of [the Islamic State], a threat to civilization, a threat to the region, and a threat to us here in Europe,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.

US-led Airstrikes

To date, only the United States has conducted direct military attacks on militants from the Islamic State, which used to be known as either the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

U.S. Central Command said Thursday U.S. fighter jets and drones attacked and destroyed two heavily armed vehicles operated by militants who had been firing on Kurdish forces in the north. Authorities said one of the airstrikes targeted an armored truck thought to have been supplied by U.S. forces to the Iraqi military and later captured by militants.

Washington has said air strikes had saved tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians under threat. Washington has also sent 130 military advisers to Iraq assess the security situation.

"We will continue air strikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq. We have increased the delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL on the front lines,” President Barack Obama said Thursday.

Also Friday, the U.N. Security Council sought to cut off funding and the flow of fighters to terrorist groups operating in Iraq and Syria. Iraq's ambassador also appealed to the United States to step up its targeted airstrikes of militants in his country.

The 15-nation council voted unanimously to sanction individuals, groups and entities that support Islamic State (IS), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and other al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist groups that are seizing territory in Iraq and Syria and killing and terrorizing civilians.

Several British lawmakers and some senior military commanders have called for Britain to join the U.S. military strikes. But some analysts argue that Kurdish and Iraqi forces should lead the fight, according to Afzal Ashraf of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"There will be some intelligence sharing, there may even be some operational support for the peshmerga and possibly the Iraqi forces to counter [the Islamic State],” Ashfar said. “But there is no ownership of a mission to defeat the IS, which I think is sensible.”

Political Solutions, Not Military

The Islamic State insurgency poses an existential threat to Iraq; but the ultimate solution lies in Baghdad rather than on the battlefield, he said.

"The U.S. and the U.K. have learnt a very valuable lesson in the last decade or so. And that is that there is no point in applying a military solution where the problem is fundamentally political," he said.

The Islamic State threat has been worsened by the growing alienation many Sunnis, and Kurds, have felt from the eight-year Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. After weeks of growing political turmoil, and fears of a potential coup by his backers, al-Maliki this week agreed to step down and be replaced by another Shiite politician, Haider al-Abadi.

Maliki and Abadi both went into exile when Saddam Hussein was in power, and returned to Iraq when U.S.-led forces toppled the dictator in 2003. While Maliki stayed mostly in Iran, Abadi spent his time in Britain, which gives him an advantage in dealing with Western leaders, said Douglas Ollivant, an analyst with the New America Foundation in Washington.

"He's been much more exposed to the West. He speaks English, has a doctorate from a British university ... in electrical engineering,” Ollivant said. Maliki is, “if nothing else, a much better face for Iraq moving forward, someone who can interact with the United States and other Western powers..."

Abadi’s Difficulties

Despite international backing and powerful support within Iraq, Abadi may find it difficult to reverse the momentum of the Islamic State. The militants draw heavily on support from disgruntled senior Iraqi officials, including Sunni Muslims who worked in the past with Saddam Hussein's army and intelligence apparatus, said Derek Harvey, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is now a political analyst.

Sectarian divisions run deep in Iraq's government, and it will take extensive action by the United States and the international community to keep Baghdad on track toward reform, he said.

"You might replace the head, but throughout the ministries, the intelligence services, the senior levels of military leadership, they are well arranged. They are well entrenched, with an attitude that is generally sectarian,” Harvey said.

The Islamic State was a much more coherent fighting force than most of its predecessors, he said.

“I think everyone recognizes today that … this is not a terrorist organization, it is a terrorist army. It is a state. It is well organized. It is well led. It has good resources. It has excellent cadres. It has a good social media [presence] and political and ideological framework that it's addressing and promoting in the region,” he said.

United Nations aid agencies have scrambled to help some 80,000 people from the minority Yazidi religious group and other religious minorities who fled to Syria earlier this month to escape Islamist rebels. The Yazidis have subsequently crossed back into Iraq, entering the Dohuk governorate of Kurdistan.

U.N. refugee agency spokesman Dan McNorton said refugees have arrived at aid stations dehydrate d and exhausted after having been forced to walk in searing heat.

In addition to caring for the 80,000 Iraqi refugees in Dohuk, the U.N. refugee agency and its partners also are assisting some 15,000 Yazidis who remain in Syria. The World Health Organization and the international Red Cross has also provided trucks with medicine for thousands of refugees.

“We are trying to scale up our operations because there are several crises in Iraq now with the Syrian refugees in Kurdistan and in Anbar province," WHO spokesman Tariq Jasarevic said.

VOA’s Sharon Behn, Lisa Bryant, Margaret Basheer and Lisa Schlein contributed to this report.

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