IRBIL, Iraq – With U.S. warplanes opening a new front against Islamic State extremists, Iraqi forces and Shiite Muslim militiamen on Sunday broke the militant group’s nearly three-month siege of the northern town of Amerli as beleaguered residents greeted them with cheers.
Iraqi soldiers entered the farming town about 100 miles north of Baghdad a day after launching a ground operation aimed at freeing the 15,000 mainly Shiite Turkmen residents, who had been encircled by the Sunni Arab militants since June.
Residents said the soldiers brought gasoline and doctors to help alleviate what human rights activists described as one of Iraq’s gravest humanitarian crises.
Amerli had been surrounded, its electricity cut off and supplies of food, potable water and essential medicines running low. Residents had taken up arms to defend their town against the Sunni militants, who view Shiites as apostates and had laid siege to several nearby Turkmen villages as they marched across northern Iraq in recent months.
“A lot of soldiers are here now, so finally we feel relieved,” said Sami Beiram, a resident and volunteer fighter interviewed by phone from Amerli.
“But we still need food; we need water; we need electricity. We need all these things.”
The Pentagon said late Saturday that it carried out airstrikes in the area and dropped humanitarian aid by plane into Amerli at the request of the Iraqi government, marking the first time that U.S. forces had struck so far to the east since launching the air campaign in mid-August.
Officials cast the mission in humanitarian terms, but the operation also put the United States on the same side of the battlefield as Shiite militias that have allied with the Iraqi government against the Islamic State. They include the armed wing of the Badr Organization, a Shiite political party that allegedly ran death squads blamed for killing untold numbers of Sunnis during Iraq’s sectarian civil war.
The Badr militiamen were among the first to enter Amerli with the Iraqi forces on Sunday, residents said, probably boosting the group’s standing among Shiites. The party’s leader, Hadi Amiri, is a close ally of Iran who is angling for a senior position in Iraq’s new government.
The operation was the latest boost to Iraqi government forces, which have rolled up a string of victories after ceding much territory to the extremists since June. Last week, Kurdish Iraqi forces routed Islamic State militants from the northern district of Zumar, extending the government’s control west of the strategic Mosul dam, which the Kurds retook in mid-August with U.S. air support.
The Kurdish soldiers, known as peshmerga, reportedly played a supporting role in the Amerli operation. A spokesman for the Kurdish semiautonomous administration, Ari Mamshae, wrote on Twitter that peshmerga arrested 56 Islamic State fighters.