- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — The U.S. launched a new airdrop Saturday to aid thousands of members of an Iraqi minority group who fled from Islamic extremists, as Iraq’s foreign minister said U.S. airstrikes have helped Kurdish forces counter the militants’ advance.

An American military team is currently in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil, working to ensure tactical coordination with Kurdish peshmerga forces, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told a press conference late Friday.

“Air strikes are intended to degrade the terrorists’ capabilities and achieve strategic gains — and have been very effective,” Zebari, a Kurd, said.

PHOTOS: US drops new aid to Iraqis fleeing militant surge

The airstrikes marked the first time U.S. forces have directly targeted the Islamic State group and the first tentative military engagement in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.

Many of America’s allies backed the U.S. intervention, pledging urgent steps to assist the legions of refugees and displaced people. Those in jeopardy included thousands of members of the Yazidi minority whose plight — trapped on a mountaintop by the militants — prompted the U.S. to airdrop dozens of crates of food and water.

The extremists have captured hundreds of Yazidi women, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians fled in fear as the militants seized a string of northern towns and villages in recent days.

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

American planes conducted a second airdrop of food and water early Saturday for those trapped in the Sinjar mountains, said Pentagon chief spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Escorted by two Navy fighter jets, three planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies for the refugees, including more than 28,000 meals and more than 1,500 gallons of water, said Kirby, who spoke from New Delhi during a trip with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry meanwhile said hundreds of Yazidi women had been seized by the militants. Citing reports from the victims’ families, he said some of the women were being held in schools in Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State group in June.

“We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them,” Kamil Amin told The Associated Press.

The U.S. military, which withdrew its forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war, returned to battle when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on a piece of artillery and the truck towing it outside Irbil on Friday.

The Pentagon said the militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, which is home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen U.S. military trainers.

Later Friday, the U.S. launched a second round of airstrikes near Irbil, U.S. officials said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the strikes publicly, said four Navy F/A-18 fighter jets destroyed a seven-vehicle convoy while unmanned aircraft hit a mortar launcher.

Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, the militants have captured a string of towns and Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks. Ethnic and religious minorities, fearing persecution and slaughter, have fled in growing numbers.

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