AMERLI, Iraq (AFP) ― Iraqi forces made more progress Tuesday in their fightback against jihadists, even as anger boiled over in Baghdad where protesters stormed parliament over the fate of missing soldiers who surrendered in June.
After breaking a months-long jihadist siege of the Shiite Turkmen-majority town of Amerli by Islamic State fighters, troops also regained control of part of a key highway linking Baghdad to the north.
Two towns north of Amerli were already taken from the jihadists on Monday as Iraqi forces ― backed by U.S. air strikes ― won their first major victories since the army‘s collapse across much of the north in June.
That collapse left some 1,700 soldiers who surrendered in jihadist hands, with many believed to have been executed.
|Members of the Iraqi Shiite militia “Peace Brigades” flash the victory sign on a government building in Amerli town, north of Baghdad, Tuesday. (EPA-Yonhap)|
Demanding to know their fate, hundreds of angry relatives stormed parliament, attacked MPs and began a sit-in in its main chamber, an official said.
Antiriot police were deployed to try to evict the protesters, who were also calling for some officers to be held accountable, said the official, who was present in parliament.
The jihadists have reportedly carried out widespread atrocities, with Amnesty International on Tuesday accusing them of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
The Sunni extremist IS declared an Islamic “caliphate” in regions under its control in Iraq and Syria after it swept through much of the Sunni Arab heartland north of Baghdad in June and then stormed minority Christian and Yazidi Kurdish areas.
IS has carried out beheadings, crucifixions and public stonings, and Amnesty accused it of “war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions” in areas it controls.
“The massacres and abductions being carried out by the Islamic State provide harrowing new evidence that a wave of ethnic cleansing against minorities is sweeping across northern Iraq,” said Amnesty’s senior crisis response adviser, Donatella Rovera.
Assistance is now arriving in Amerli, brought in both by fighters and the United Nations, which said Tuesday it had “delivered 45 metric tons of life-saving supplies.”
As an aid truck entered the town, one man who had fought to defend Amerli said it was the first time he had seen grapes in months.
The siege took a heavy toll on residents, including Umm Ahmed, who lost her husband and 10-year-old son to a mortar round, leaving her to raise their three daughters, the oldest of whom is 8.
There was “no food and no water to drink, and the children and the elderly were dying,” she said.
A day after seizing Amerli, troops and Shiite militiamen on Monday retook Sulaiman Bek and Yankaja, two towns to its north that had been important militant strongholds.
Army Staff Lt. Gen. Abdulamir al-Zaidi said they continued the advance on Tuesday, regaining control of a stretch of the main highway to northern Iraq that had been closed by the militants for almost three months.
“The way from Baghdad to Kirkuk has become secure,” said the commander of the Shiite Badr militia, Transport Minister Hadi al-Ameri.
The United States said it launched four air strikes in the Amerli area, meaning that it effectively supported operations involving militia forces that previously fought against U.S. troops in Iraq.
The government’s reliance on Shiite militiamen in this and other operations risks entrenching groups which themselves have a history of brutal sectarian killings.
But worries over the rise of IS seem to be outweighing other concerns, with Western leaders warning the group poses a security risk far outside the areas under its control.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday said that “extreme force”
was justified against IS militants, describing them as worse than Nazis.
Fiji, meanwhile, revealed that al-Qaida-linked rebels in Syria holding 45 of its United Nations peacekeepers hostage in the Golan Heights are demanding they be expunged from a U.N. terror blacklist.
The Fijians, part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, were captured last Wednesday when Al-Nusra Front rebels stormed a Golan crossing into Israeli-occupied territory.
Another group of 75 Philippine peacekeepers refused to surrender and eventually escaped from two camps on the Syrian side of the demarcation line after the rebels besieged them.
Fiji’s army chief Mosese Tikoitoga said a U.N. team had arrived in the Golan from New York to take over negotiations for their release.
“Unfortunately we have not made any improvement in the situation, our troops remain at an undisclosed location, the rebels are not telling us where they are,” Tikoitoga said.
He said the hostage-takers were also demanding humanitarian aid for areas they control and compensation for their casualties.