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Kurds retake 2 towns from militants in Iraq

Kurdish peshmerga troops stood guard against Islamic militant forces on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh.

Ari Jalal/Reuters

Kurdish peshmerga troops stood guard against Islamic militant forces on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh.

GWER, Iraq — With US strikes beginning to show clear effects on the battlefield, Kurdish forces counterattacked Sunni militants in northern Iraq on Sunday, regaining control of two strategic towns with aid from the air.

The US airstrikes, carried out by drones and fighter jets, were intended to support the Kurdish forces fighting to defend Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, according to a statement by the US Central Command. They destroyed three military vehicles being used by the militant group, the Islamic State, and damaged others, the statement said, adding that the warplanes also destroyed a mortar position.

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The wreckage of three heavily armed trucks lay twisted and scorched in Gwer, one of the recaptured towns, a few hours after the strikes, and body parts from at least three militants were scattered nearby. Kurdish militiamen, known as peshmerga, confirmed seeing the airstrikes, and celebrated Sunday afternoon near the still-smoldering wrecks.

The US air support encouraged the Kurdish militiamen to reverse the momentum of the recent fighting and retake Gwer and the other town, Mahmour, both within a half-hour’s drive of Erbil, according to General Helgurd Hikmet, head of the peshmerga’s media office. Hikmet said some peshmerga fighters had pushed on beyond the two towns, which lie on the frontier between the Arab and Kurdish areas of Iraq.

The developments came as political tensions mounted in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on state television early Monday and redoubled his demands for a new term.

US air power in the north also appeared to alter the situation at Mount Sinjar, where members of the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority have been driven into rough country by an Islamic State dragnet. Four US airstrikes on the extremists surrounding the mountain Saturday, along with airdrops of food, water and supplies, helped Yazidi and Kurdish fighters beat back militants and open a path for thousands of Yazidis to escape the siege. The escapees made their way Sunday through Syrian territory to Fishkhabour, an Iraqi border town under Kurdish control.

Tens of thousands more Yazidis remain trapped on the mountain, and US officials cautioned that the limited airstrikes alone could not open a corridor to safety for them. Neither, they said, would the US airstrikes be the decisive factor in the fight to stop the Islamic State.

“This is a focused effort, not a wider air campaign,” said Colonel Ed Thomas, spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey. “It’s important to understand that our military objectives are limited in purpose.”

President Obama and other US officials have said that more ambitious US support would be predicated on the Iraqi political leadership breaking a long political deadlock and appointing a new prime minister, one who would head a more inclusive government than the Shi’ite-dominated administration of Maliki, and could reach a political settlement with Iraq’s disaffected Sunni population.

But the political crisis deepened at midnight Sunday as a deadline expired for President Fouad Massoum to choose a nominee for prime minister. Maliki angrily accused Massoum of violating the constitution by not choosing him. “I will complain to the federal court,” Maliki said.

One senior Iraqi official said Maliki had also positioned more tanks and extra units of special-forces soldiers loyal to him in the fortified green zone of government buildings in Baghdad overnight. The official said Maliki had “gone out of his mind, and lives on a different planet — he doesn’t appreciate the mess he has created.” A Kurdish news agency reported that presidential guards were “on high alert to protect the presidential palace,” and the capital swirled with rumors about what might happen next.

Peshmerga forces retook Gwer around midday, pushing through the town center and methodically searching for snipers, stragglers, and booby traps that the Islamic State might have left behind. The main threat turned out to be north of the town. In three spots a mile apart, Islamic State fighters had concealed trucks of a type used by the Iraqi army, mounted with machine guns.

According to peshmerga accounts, when those trucks emerged around 3 p.m. from hiding places in farmhouses and barns near the highway in an apparent attempt to attack the Kurds from the rear, American jet fighter-bombers streaked in and blew up the trucks with cannon fire and bombs.

Both Gwer and Mahmour are about 20 miles from Erbil, and advances by the militants last week briefly panicked residents in Erbil, which had been regarded as a safe haven. The US airstrikes seemed to have quickly restored confidence, with international flights into Erbil resuming after a pause, and business returning to normal.

Still, a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said Sunday that some staff members from the consulate in Erbil had been relocated to Basra, in southern Iraq, and Amman, Jordan, because of the security situation.

Maliki once enjoyed US support, becoming prime minister in 2006 largely because of backing from Washington.

Now, though, his government is buckling under the assault from the Islamic State, and much of his support among the parties representing Iraq’s Shi’ite majority has turned away, including some members of his own bloc, State of Law. US officials have been working behind the scenes to oust him. Even so, he has continued to cling to power and seek a new term.

State of Law won the most seats in the national election in April, but not a majority, and opposing Shi’ite factions have been wrangling since then over whom to back. The Parliament has managed to agree on a Sunni, Salim al-Jubouri, to be speaker, and on Massoum, a Kurd, to be president, but it has not been able to elect a prime minister, the country’s dominant official.

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