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Iraqis fight back after breaking jihadist siege

SULAIMAN BEK, Iraq--Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shiite militiamen backed by U.S. air strikes pressed a counter-offensive against jihadist-led militants Monday, buoyed by breaking the 11-week siege of a Shiite town.

The breakthrough to the town of Amerli is the biggest offensive success for the Iraqi government since militants led by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group overran much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June.

It came as the United States carried out limited air strikes in the area, the first time it has expanded its more than three-week air campaign against IS beyond the north, while the United Nations announced that violence in Iraq killed more than 1,400 people in August.

Iraqi forces kept up the momentum of their advance on Monday, with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen retaking Sulaiman Bek, a town north of Amerli that had been an important militant stronghold.

“Within a few hours, we were able to clear the town completely,” the commander of the Shiite Badr militia, Transport Minister Hadi al-Ameri, told AFP amid heavy security in Sulaiman Bek.

Fighters celebrated in the abandoned town, firing in the air, chanting slogans against IS, and parading a captured black jihadist flag, an AFP journalist reported.

Troops backed by Kurdish fighters and Shiite militiamen also surrounded the nearby town of Yankaja and were pounding it with artillery and machinegun fire as they fought to retake it from militants.

Before the operation, the mainly Shiite Turkmen residents of Amerli, to the south, were endangered both because of their faith, which jihadists consider heresy, and their resistance to the militants, which has drawn harsh retribution elsewhere.

U.N. Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov had warned that they faced a “massacre” by the besieging militants.

The operation to free Amerli was launched on Saturday after days of preparations.

The government's reliance on Shiite militiamen in this and other operations poses serious dangers for Iraq, risking entrenching groups with a history of brutal sectarian killings.

US Expands Air Campaign

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An Iraqi militia fighter from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade), fires a mortar during heavy clashes with Islamic State (IS) fighters in Tuz Khurmatu in Salaheddin province about 88 kilometers (55 miles) south of Kirkuk on Sunday, Aug. 31.

(AFP

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