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Iraqi, Kurdish Officials Welcome U.S. Airdrops

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IRAQ KURDISH
Iraqi displaced women, who fled violence in the northern city of Tal Afar, walk past tents at Khazer refugee camp near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski kalak, 40 km West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on July 27, 2014. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images) | SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images
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KHAZER CAMP, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of displaced Iraqis fled their camp in the face of advancing fighters of the Islamic State group, deepening the humanitarian crisis in the north of the country as the United States carried out its first airstrikes against the militants to blunt their assault.

The Khazer Camp stood empty Friday, located near the front lines of battles between the militants and Kurdish fighters. The camp had been populated by Iraqis who fled their cities and towns as they were taken over by Islamic State fighters in past weeks, and in the past few days they have been forced to flee again.

The militants have been making a push from their strongholds in northwest Iraq toward Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone. For days the two sides have been battling each other over a river at a destroyed bridge on the main road 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Irbil.

U.S. fighter jets dropped 400-pound bombs on an artillery piece and truck towing it after it fired near U.S. personnel outside Irbil, the Pentagon said.

An Associated Press reporter at Khazer saw at least six more explosions in the area Friday, apparently from airstrikes, though it was not known who was carrying them out, since the Iraqi air force has also been hitting positions of Islamic State group.

The U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian air drops reflect the deepest American engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011, after nearly a decade of war. The move pointed to the growing crisis sparked by the Sunni radical group's advances.

Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the militants have captured a string of surrounding towns and even the country's largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks, solidifying their hold.

Ethnic and religious minorities in particular have fled in fear as their towns fall.

U.S. cargo planes on Thursday dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis — half of them children, according to the U.N. — who have been trapped on a remote desert mountain for days without food and water after militants took their town of Sinjar near the Syrian border, according to witnesses in Sinjar, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

Kamil Amin, spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, said hundreds of Yazidi woman under the age of 35 have been taken captive by the militants and that many of them were being held in Mosul.

Yazidis belong to ancient religion seen by the Islamic State group as heretical. The group also sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

Many of the Iraqis who fled Khazer Camp in recent days made their way by car or by foot to Irbil. Others are unaccounted for amid the vast sea of refugees and internally displaced people now roaming Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The rush of people expelled from their homes or fleeing violence has exacerbated Iraq's already-dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.

In Irbil, hundreds of displaced Iraqi men crowded the streets of a Christian-dominated neighborhood Friday, expressing relief at the news of U.S. airstrikes.

Nazar, one of the men lingering outside a bare-bones building-turned-shelter, fled his mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya on Wednesday, when their home began to shutter from the blast of nearby mortar fire.

"We want a solution," said Nazar, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name, fearing his family's safety. "We don't to flee our homes and jobs like this — what is our future?"

In contrast to Washington's decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, both the airdrop and the authorization of military action against the Islamic State group were widely welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials fearful of the militants' lightning advance.

"We thank Barack Obama," said Khalid Jamal Alber, from the Religious Affairs Ministry in the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and the Displaced also welcomed the aid drops. Ministry spokesman Satar Nawrouz said the drops came "just in time."

About 50,000 Yazidis are believed to have fled into the mountains outside Sinjar. An Iraqi military handout video posted online showed Iraqi troops in helicopters also delivering aid to the area. The footage corresponds to AP reporting of events.

The Islamic State group captured Mosul in June, and then launched a blitz toward the south, sweeping over Sunni-majority towns nearly down to the capital, Baghdad. It already holds large parts of western Iraq, as well as large swaths of the north and east in neighboring Syria.

Iraqi government forces crumbled in the face of the assault, but have since been able to prevent the militants from advancing into Shiite-majority areas. In the north, the Kurds have been the main line of defense against the radicals, but their fighters are now stretched over a long front trying to fend them off.

Now it is expanding in the north. On Thursday the group said it has seized 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets — including the dam and a military base — over the past five days, including Qaraqoush, the largest Christian village in Iraq. The group also claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in Baghdad that killed 17 people late Thursday. In a statement posted Friday on a militant website frequently used by the group, it said that the attack was a double suicide bombing.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker, Ala Talabani said that a real U.S. military help is badly needed now.

"What the Iraqi people need from the United States is strong and aggressive airstrikes instead of limited ones because the situation is very delicate and cannot be solved with limited actions," he said.

Traveling in India, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier Friday that if Islamic militants threaten U.S. interests in Iraq or the thousands of refugees in the mountains, the U.S. military has enough intelligence to clearly single out the attackers and launch effective airstrikes.

He also told reporters that more than 60 of the 72 bundles of food and water airdropped onto the mountain reached the people stranded there.

A representative of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for a more comprehensive international intervention to support the Iraqi government.

"The statements of condemnation or consolation in support of the affected people or just sending humanitarian aid are not enough. Rather, solid plans, in cooperation with the Iraqi government, should be put in place to confront and eliminate the terrorists," said al-Sistani's spokesman Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Karbala.

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Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston and Lolita Baldor in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.

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New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.

Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.

Read her moving account on The New York Times here.

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The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.

Watch the BBC report here.

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Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.

More from AFP:

Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.

"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.

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The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.

From Reuters:

Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.

But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.

"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.

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The Associated Press reports:

Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.

Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.

The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.

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The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.

U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.

Read the full story here.

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Reuters reports:

Islamic State insurgents "massacred" some 80 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority in a village in the country's north, a Yazidi lawmaker and two Kurdish officials said on Friday.

"They arrived in vehicles and they started their killing this afternoon," senior Kurdish official Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters. "We believe it's because of their creed: convert or be killed."

A Yazidi lawmaker and another senior Kurdish official also said the killings had taken place and that the women of the village were kidnapped.

A push by Islamic State militants through northern Iraq to the border with the Kurdish region has alarmed the Baghdad government, drawn the first U.S. air strikes since the end of American occupation in 2001 and sent tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians fleeing for their lives.

Yazidi parliamentarian Mahama Khalil said he had spoken to villagers who had survived the attack. They said the killings took place during a one-hour period.

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ABC News' Jon Williams posted a photo of the UN Security Council Resolution against Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria.

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From Reuters:

The Hezbollah leader described the radical Islamist movement that has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria as a growing "monster" that could threaten Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states, according to an interview printed on Friday.

In a separate speech, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Islamic State also posed an existential threat to his own nation, Lebanon, the target of an incursion by Islamist insurgents from Syria this month. He said his heavily armed Shi'ite Muslim group was ready to fight the threat in Lebanon - if required.

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Reuters reports:

The United Nations Security Council took aim at Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria on Friday, blacklisting six people including the Islamic State spokesman and threatening sanctions against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the insurgents.

The 15-member council unanimously adopted a resolution that aims to weaken the Islamic State - an al Qaeda splinter group that has seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate - and al Qaeda's Syrian wing Nusra Front.

Read the full story here.

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The Associated Press reports:

Canada is committing two cargo planes to move military supplies into northern Iraq as part of the international effort to bolster Kurdish forces against Islamic militants.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday a CC-177 Globemaster and a CC-130J Hercules transport will shuttle arms provided by allies to the Iraqi city of Irbil over the next few days

The flights, crewed by some 30 Canadian Forces personnel, will continue as long as there is equipment and supplies to move.

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The New York Times reports on how the U.S. decided it was not necessary to launch a mountain rescue of Yazidis who had fled the Islamic State, after getting advisors reported back that the situation was not as dire as they thought.

From The New York Times:

The news took the far-flung advisers who were in the videoconference — including Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Hawaii; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on a plane over the Rockies; and the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, who was with the president on Martha’s Vineyard — by surprise. Just hours before, the White House had sent out a top aide with a statement saying that the United States was considering using American ground troops to rescue the Yazidis.

The article notes that Yazidi and UN officials give a different picture of Yazidis still stranded on the mountaintop.

Read the full story at The New York Times here.

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Amid the relentless advance of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, the whole Middle East region needs to pitch in to solve the crisis, Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat Newspaper told HuffPost Live.

In particular, Iran and Saudi Arabia have a shared interest in stability in Iraq and should overcome their differences to halt the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, Karam told host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani.

"We do need a regional wake-up call to deal with the threat and a Iranian-Saudi rapprochement would do a great deal in promoting this," she said.

Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.

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From Reuters:

The European Union said on Friday that individual EU governments were free to send weapons to Iraqi Kurds battling Islamic militants provided they had the consent of Iraqi national authorities.

EU foreign ministers holding an emergency meeting in Brussels did not reach a united position to all send arms to the Iraqi Kurds but welcomed the decision by some EU governments, such as France, to do so.

The EU said it would also look at how to prevent Islamic State militants, who have overrun some oilfields in Syria and Iraq, benefiting from oil sales. The bloc also called for a swift investigation of human rights abuses in Syria and Iraq, saying some may be crimes against humanity.

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peshmerga
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter plays a musical instrument on the front line in Khazer, near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski kalak, northern Iraq, on August 14, 2014. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

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Reuters reports:

Tribal leaders and clerics from Iraq's Sunni heartland who staged a revolt against outgoing prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government would be willing to join the new administration if certain conditions are met, a spokesman for the group told Reuters on Friday.

The spokesman, Taha Mohammed Al-Hamdoon, said Sunni representatives in Anbar and other provinces had drawn up a list of demands to be delivered to the moderate Shi'ite Abadi through Sunni politicians.

He called for government and Shi'ite militia forces to suspend hostilities to allow space for talks.

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The United Nations agency for refugees interviews Yazidi refugees who escaped from the Sinjar mountains:

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Reuters reports:

Iraq's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threw his weight on Friday behind the new prime minister, calling for national unity to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State militants that threatens Baghdad.

Speaking after Nuri al-Maliki finally stepped down as prime minister under heavy pressure from allies at home and abroad, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ite majority said the handover to Maliki's party colleague Haider al-Abadi offered a rare opportunity to resolve political and security crises.

Iraq has been plunged into its worst violence since the peak of a sectarian civil war in 2006-2007, with Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State overrunning large parts of the west and north, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives and threatening the ethnic Kurds in their autonomous province.

Sistani told the country's feuding politicians to live up to their "historic responsibility" by cooperating with Abadi as he tries to form a new government and overcome divisions among the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that deepened as Maliki pursued what critics saw as a sectarian Shi'ite agenda.

Abadi himself, in comments online, urged his countrymen to unite and cautioned that the road ahead would be tough.

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The U.S. government's development agency posted a photo on Twitter of American officials meeting with displaced Yazidis on the Sinjar mountains on Wednesday. USAID said the assessment team consisted of military and humanitarian officials.

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More from the Associated Press on Maliki's announcement he is standing down:

Al-Maliki says his decision is based on his desire to "safeguard the high interests of the country," adding that he will not be the cause of any bloodshed.

"I will stay a combat soldier to defend Iraq and its people," he added in the televised address late Thursday, with al-Abadi standing by his side.

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08/14/2014 4:12 PM EDT
Maliki Due To Address The Nation

The Associated Press reports:

Iraqi state television says Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki has given up his post as prime minister to Haider al-Abadi.

The Iraqiya television network said al-Maliki has "relinquished the post of prime minister." It did not elaborate.

The announcement comes ahead of an address al-Maliki is due to make later Thursday evening, according to the government.

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The Associated Press reports:

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government says embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to address the nation, as Shiite lawmakers say he has agreed to step aside and support his nominated replacement in the post.

Four senior Shiite lawmakers tell The Associated Press that al-Maliki has agreed to endorse Haider al-Abadi as the next prime minister following a meeting of Dawa party members in Baghdad late Thursday, ending the deadlock that has plunged Baghdad into a political uncertainty.

Hussein al-Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad, lawmakers with al-Maliki and al-Abadi's State of Law parliamentary bloc, say al-Maliki will support al-Abadi's nomination in his speech Thursday night. Two other lawmakers, speaking to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting, also say al-Maliki will do so.

The government announced al-Maliki will speak Thursday evening.

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The United Nations Security Council will vote on Friday on a draft resolution aimed to stop the flow of fighters and money to the Islamic State militant group, according to Agence France Presse.

Diplomats told the news agency that all 15 Council members have agreed the draft, proposed by Britain, and it will go to a vote at 1900 GMT on Friday.

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