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Iraqi forces ready for Washington-backed counter-offensive

ARBIL, Iraq -- U.S. President Barack Obama vowed Saturday to help rescue thousands of civilians besieged by jihadists on an Iraqi mountain, as an MP warned they would not survive much longer.

Obama's decision to send warplanes back to Iraq, three years after withdrawing the last U.S. troops, marked a potential turning point in the two-month-old conflict.

After a first day of U.S. air raids on fighters who had moved within striking distance of Kurdistan, a top official in the autonomous region said the time had come for a fightback.

“Following the U.S. strikes, the peshmerga will first regroup, second redeploy in areas they retreated from and third help the displaced return to their homes,” Fuad Hussein told reporters Friday in the Kurdish capital Arbil.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who has boycotted cabinet meetings for weeks as relations soured with Baghdad, said that failing to arm the Kurdish peshmerga forces had been a costly mistake.

But he said the American air strikes had stopped the rot on the ground and allowed the federal and Kurdish authorities to unite behind the common cause of defeating the jihadists.

“The Iraqi army and the peshmerga are fighting side-by-side in the same trenches now,” he said.

Iraq's military chief of staff, Babaker Zebari, told AFP on Friday that U.S. advisers, peshmerga and federal top brass were “selecting targets” together.

The first U.S. bombings struck IS positions and at least one convoy of vehicles carrying militants west of Arbil.

Obama said he had authorized the strikes in Iraq to protect U.S. personnel serving there. “And, if necessary, that's what we will continue to do,” he said Saturday.

A White House spokesman stressed Friday the strikes would be “very limited in scope,” but Babaker Zebari said he thought U.S. air support would extend to other areas.

He said the intervention would allow joint action to reclaim large tracts of land lost to the Sunni extremists since they launched their devastating offensive on June 9, exactly two months ago.

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Smoke rises after airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq, Friday, Aug. 8. The Iraqi Air Force has been carrying out strikes against the militants, and for the first time on Friday, U.S. warplanes also directly targeted the group. (AP)

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