Warm welcome in Kirkuk for convoy of Kurdish fighters
RAW VISION: A convoy of Kurdish forces said to be fighters from the PKK's armed wing get a warm welcome as they arrive in Kirkuk to bolster defenses against Islamic State militants.PT0M0S 620 349
Erbil, Iraq: Iraq's Kurdish peshmerga, buoyed by US air strikes, have reclaimed two towns from jihadist fighters, while Western powers ramped up efforts to save displaced civilians stranded on a mountain.
The third straight day of strikes by US jets and drones brought the first sign that US President Barack Obama's decision to return to Iraq could turn the tide on two months of jihadist expansion.
"The peshmerga have liberated Makhmur and Gwer," peshmerga spokesman Halgord Hekmat told AFP on Sunday, adding that "US aerial support helped".
Kurdish peshmerga troops fight back against Islamic State militants. Photo: Reuters
Another official confirmed the Kurdish troops had recaptured the towns, which Islamic State (IS, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) militants had seized days earlier, bringing them within striking distance of Kurdish capital Arbil.
The past week saw jihadist fighters make dramatic gains, seizing Iraq's largest dam, repeatedly defeating the peshmerga and taking over large swathes of land.
The US air strikes which Mr Obama announced on Thursday stopped the rout just as the militants moved close enough to the autonomous Kurdish region to cause a panic in Erbil, where some US personnel are stationed.
US President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks to the media on the situation in Iraq on the South Lawn of the White House. Photo: Reuters
IS attacks have displaced 200,000 people since August 3, including all the residents of Iraq's largest Christian town Qaraqosh and a large contingent of Iraq's small Yazidi minority, whose main hub Sinjar was attacked last weekend.
According to leaders and witnesses, several dozen men were executed and groups of women abducted.
When the militants entered Sinjar, tens of thousands of people ran up the nearby mountain to hide.
Thousands were still there a week later, trying to survive in searing heat with little food or water.
The siege of Mount Sinjar, which local legend holds as the final resting place of Noah's Ark, and a poignant appeal by Yazidi MP Vian Dakhil to save her community from extermination have captured the West's attention.
Mr Obama justified his decision to send warplanes back over Iraqi skies three years after the last troops pulled out partly because of the risk of an impending genocide.
The US intervention appeared to yield early results as officials said around 20,000 people had escaped the siege and been escorted to safety by Kurdish troops since Saturday.
"20,000 to 30,000 have managed to flee Mount Sinjar but there are still thousands on the mountain," Ms Dakhil told AFP. "The passage isn't 100 per cent safe. There is still a risk."
US and Iraqi cargo planes have been air dropping food and water over Mount Sinjar and Britain joined the effort overnight Saturday with its first air drop of food and water.
At pains to assure war-weary Americans he was not being dragged into a new Iraqi quagmire, Mr Obama put the onus on Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government and turn the tide on jihadist expansion.
His comments were another nudge for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step aside and allow for a consensus government.
Mr Obama did not give a timetable for the US military intervention but said Saturday that Iraq's problems would not be solved in weeks. "This is going to be a long-term project," he said.