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US aids displaced Iraqis as airstrikes help Kurds
BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Iraqi central government followed U.S. forces in delivering massive amounts of aid Saturday to refugees stranded high in the Sinjar mountains after they escaped a Sunni militant takeover of their towns, and President Barack Obama warned Americans that the renewed U.S. military campaign in Iraq will be "a long-term project."
Iraq's defense ministry released a video showing a fleet of C130 cargo planes, each carrying 20 tons of foodstuffs and water, dropping the aid to people in the mountains earlier Saturday. The video shows aerial views of hundreds of cars on top of the mountain and men rushing to collect the deliveries.
President Barack Obama wouldn't say Saturday just how long the U.S. military involvement would last. He said it depends on the Iraqi government's sincerity in bringing feuding political parties and sectarian groups together to combat the crisis.
"I don't think we are going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said. He described the militant takeover of large parts of Iraq as "a wake-up call for a lot of Iraqis inside of Baghdad" who must cooperate to keep their country from breaking up.
The U.S. military, which officially withdrew its combat forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war, returned to battle Friday when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it outside Irbil.
The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.
A second round of airstrikes by four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy, and unmanned aircraft hit a mortar launcher near Irbil, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the strikes publicly.
American planes dropped food and water on Friday and Saturday for those trapped in the Sinjar mountains, said Pentagon chief spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called upon his air force on Monday to provide aerial reinforcements to Kurdish fighters on the front lines of battle against the Islamic State militants. This was the first show of cooperation between the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government since the fall of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, in June.
But Kurdish officials were particularly pleased that U.S. forces were back in earnest. Their regional government said that American military were coordinating tactical responses with Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Kurdish capital, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said the U.S. strikes were making a difference.
"Air strikes are intended to degrade the terrorists' capabilities and achieve strategic gains - and have been very effective, Zebari said late Friday.
Many of America's allies backed the U.S. intervention, pledging urgent steps to assist the legions of refugees and displaced people. Those in jeopardy included thousands of members of the Yazidi minority whose plight - trapped on a mountaintop by the militants - prompted the U.S. to airdrop dozens of crates of food and water.
The first British cargo planes carrying emergency supplies including drinking water and tents have also left for Iraq and will begin dropping aid in the northwest region "imminently," British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Saturday.
"We can expect a continuing drumbeat of airdrop operations working in coordination with the U.S and potentially with others as well," Hammond said. "But more widely we are looking at how to support this group of people and get them off that mountain, how we are going to facilitate their exit from what is a completely unacceptable situation."
Yazidis belong to ancient religion that the Islamic State group considers to be heretical and has vowed to destroy. The extremist group considers Shiite Muslims apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
Hundreds of Yazidi women have been seized by the militants, and their families say some were being held in schools in Mosul, said Kamil Amin, the spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry.
"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told The Associated Press.
The militants have expanded from their stronghold in Mosul to capture a string of towns and Iraq's largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks. They pushed southward, sweeping over Sunni-majority towns almost to Iraq's capital of Baghdad, and now hold large parts of western Iraq as well as swaths of neighboring Syria.
Ethnic and religious minorities, fearing persecution and slaughter, have fled in growing numbers. According to the U.N., more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, bringing this year's total to well over 1 million.
Iraqi government forces initially crumbled in the face of the assaults but have since been able to prevent the militants from advancing into Shiite-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defense, but their fighters are stretched over a long front.
The Islamic State group posted a video online Saturday showing evidence of their recent conquests, including government offices in Sinjar and the Mosul Dam, which fell to the militants on Thursday. The video also shows militants beating a large picture of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani with their shoes and slippers.
Two Gulf-based airlines said Saturday they have re-routed flights over Iraq because of the deteriorating security situation. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways and Bahrain's Gulf Air followed a similar move by Dubai-based Emirates, the Middle East's largest carrier. On Friday the Obama administration ordered U.S. airlines not to fly over Iraq.
But Turkish Airlines said it has resumed flights to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government released a statement Saturday saying that militants have been unable to target oil operations in the Kurdish region, and that production remains unaffected by the current crisis.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Dahuk, Bram Janssen in Irbil, Sylvia Hui and Danica Kirka in London, Robert Burns and Josh Lederman in Washington, Caleb Jones in New York, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Lolita C. Baldor in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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