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U.S. Launches Airstrikes To Help Aid Reach Iraqi Town


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Iraqi and Kurdish officials say their forces have broken a two-month siege of an Iraqi town by fighters calling themselves the Islamic State. The joint operation was backed by U.S. airstrikes and followed by international humanitarian airlifts. Residents of Amerli have gone weeks with little food and only tainted water to drink. From Erbil, NPR's Peter Kenyon spoke to residents shortly before the operation began and has more on what life there has been like.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Amerli is surrounded by dozens of villages that were seized by the self-described Islamic State in June. Iraqi and Kurdish military commanders say Peshmerga and Iraqi forces are in control of the town now - and efforts are continuing to secure the surrounding villages.

The Pentagon says besides U.S. airstrikes in support of the operation, food, water and medical supplies were dropped overnight by the U.S., Britain, France and Australia. Before the rescue operation began NPR reached Mohammed Fares, a 42-year-old Amerli teacher, by phone. He said the siege has taken its toll.

MOHAMMED FARES: (Through translator) The humanitarian situation is very bad in Amerli. It's been over 70 days. Pregnant women have died and also more than 10 children have died of dehydration.

KENYON: Amerli is another minority town under assault by the Sunni extremists who claim to enforce a pure version of Islam. The first attack came in June when the Islamic State seized the northern city of Mosul. Amerli, however, resisted mightily and held out against long odds. The town is home of Shi'ite Turkmen - one of several Iraqi minority groups seen as apostates by the Sunni Islamists.

Speaking from his windswept roof - the only place he gets a decent phone signal - Fares says his daily life revolves around guard duty, a single meal and trying to get some sleep in the oppressive heat.

FARES: (Through translator) I spent all night at the front guarding the town with my friends to protect our families. In the morning we come home and try to sleep and another group takes the guard. We sleep until it gets too hot because there is no electricity. Certain houses cook the food. If you get lunch, you don't get dinner. And if you get dinner, no lunch. Also everyone who smokes gets three cigarettes a day. We don't have many.

KENYON: The town, home to a significant number of former military men, has held out longer than anyone anticipated. Residents say farmers are slaughtering their remaining livestock to keep people alive, but the unclean water brought up from wells is a critical health hazard.

Forty seven-year-old Mohammed Zidan says he has kidney problems and a rash - probably from the contaminated water. He says people are grateful for the aid planes that I have come in - though the jihadist fighters attacked each time they tried to land.

MOHAMMED ZIDAN: (Through translator) They came several times. But when the planes appear, ISIS shoots mortars and rockets. And so we can't leave our homes when the planes come. Volunteer doctors came a few days ago. They did what they could, but we're very short of medicine and supplies.

KENYON: Officials report that Amerli residents celebrated the breaking of the siege. Zidan says people can't understand why that response was so slow. He says for weeks they heard about American planes pushing Islamic State forces back from Christian and Yazidi areas.

ZIDAN: (Through translator) Amerli people say thank you, America, for helping the Christians in Mosul and the Yazidi in Sinjar. When we hear about these airstrikes we thank God and we say, please, come help us also. We need help. Please don't forget us.

KENYON: In other recent clashes, Islamic State fighters have pulled back when faced with a concerted attack. If that pattern holds in Amerli, Zidan and his fellow residents may have the relief they've waited so long for. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.