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Iraqi airforce strikes target besieged Amerli

Security forces and volunteer fighters have retaken villages around Amerli, where the Shiite population fear execution by IS militants
Islamic State gunmen have laid siege to the Turkmen village of Amerli since June (AFP)

Iraqi aircraft carried out strikes targeting militants in the Amerli area on Friday as security forces ready a major assault to break through to the besieged Shiite Turkmen town, officers said.

Located south of Kirkuk near the Iran border, Amerli has been surrounded by militants for more than two months, and its residents face severe shortages of food and water, as well as the threat of the militants.

Iraqi aircraft struck militants in villages in the Amerli area, said Colonel Mustafa al-Bayati, while Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi said an Mi-35 helicopter targeted militants near Jabal Hamreen, to its south.

Militia forces, who have been fighting with the Iraqi troops, have amassing north of Amerli, while the troops push towards the town from the south in a major operation to free it.

Residents of Amerli are in grave danger both because of their Shiite faith, which militants consider heresy, and their resistance to the militants, which has drawn harsh retribution elsewhere.

Iraqi forces retook several villages on the way to Amerli on Thursday, as part of a major operation to free the town.

US officials say that Washington is weighing both aid drops and air strikes to help the town.

"It could be a humanitarian operation. It could be a military operation. It could be both," a US defence official said on condition of anonymity.

Iraqi security forces backed by volunteer militiamen on Thursday retook several villages located on the way to the town of Amerli, which the Islamic State (IS) has besieged for months, officers said.

Time is running out for Amerli's Shiite Turkmen-majority residents, who face danger both because of their faith, which IS consider heresy, and their resistance against the militants, which has drawn deadly retribution elsewhere.

Army Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi told AFP that villages north of Al-Adhaim were retaken as part of a major operation aimed at advancing toward Amerli.

Brigadier General Khalaf Jassem confirmed that the villages had been retaken, and like Zaidi put the toll for militants at more than two dozen dead.

Senior Iraqi officials and officers frequently report large militant death tolls, but they are usually impossible to independently confirm.

In addition to the Iraqi forces advancing toward Amerli from the south, a civilian volunteer commander said that thousands of Shiite militiamen from groups including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organisation were gathering in the Tuz Khurmatu area, north of Amerli, in preparation for a battle to break the siege.

But reliance on such groups carries risks, especially after 70 people were gunned down in a Sunni mosque on 22 August by suspected Shiite militiamen.

Officials say that Washington is weighing both aid drops and air strikes to help the town.

"It could be a humanitarian operation. It could be a military operation. It could be both," a US defence official said on condition of anonymity.

And Iraqi aircraft are already carrying out strikes targeting the militants.

There is "no possibility of evacuating them so far", Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman for the UN mission in Iraq, said of Amerli residents.

UN Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has called for an urgent effort to help Amerli, saying residents face a "possible massacre" if the town is overrun.