United States bombing raids on ISIS positions in northern Iraq appeared to be showing positive results just four days after they began, as Kurdish forces were able to free about 20,000 trapped members of the ancient Yazidi religious sect from a deadly siege by the militants who aim to create an Islamic state throughout the Middle East.
The Yazidi, who adhere to a religion believed to be among the world’s oldest, have been trapped by the thousands without access to food or water on the top of Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq, surrounded by the Islamic State fighters who consider them evil and have given them the ultimatum to immediately convert to Islam or simply die.
According to Iraqi Human Rights official Kamil Amin, there were between 50,000 and 60,000 Yazidi stranded and cut off on the mountain by the ISIS stranglehold, living in horrifying conditions with, according to witnesses, dead bodies simply lying on the ground, becoming food for wandering dogs.
But emboldened by four days of U.S. aerial bombing of ISIS positions and equipment, Kurdish fighters Sunday recaptured two towns that had earlier fallen to ISIS militants, and freed about 20,000 of the besieged Yazidi. A Kurdish official, Hoshiyar Zebari, said that Kurdish soldiers received air support from the United States in their successful efforts to take back those two towns.
United States forces carried out five airstrikes Sunday, bombing a mortar position and armed ISIS vehicles. At the same time, Kurdish forces expelled ISIS fighter from the villages of Makhmour and al-Gweir, about 30 miles from Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq that is home to many Americans as well as a U.S. consulate.
The U.S. has already relocated many diplomatic workers and officials out of Irbil.
But the news was not all good. According to Amin, ISIS has killed about 500 Yazidi so far in northern Iraq. In some cases, the victims were executed, in others they died of starvation and dehydration.
Amin said he has received reports of ISIS burying entire families alive. Those reports have not yet been independently authenticated, however, not has the number of Yazidi killed so far.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, said that U.S. airstrikes have proven effective, but it will take shipments of sophisticated weaponry to the Kurds to turn the tide in the battle against ISIS. But Barzani said he does not want U.S. ground troops in the region.
“We are not asking our friends to send their sons to fight on our behalf,” Barzani said to The Associated Press. “What we are asking our friends is to provide us support and to cooperate with us in providing us with heavy weapons that we are able to fight this terrorist group.”
One Yazidi survivor of the ISIS siege said that he personally saw between 500 and 1,000 dead bodies on the mountain where thousands of Yazidi remain trapped.