20,000 Yazidis Rescued by Kurds as Islamic State Advances

Twenty thousand Iraqi Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar were rescued by Kurdish troops Sunday. Managing to break a siege on the area by the extremist Islamist group Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), Kurdish forces transported the Yazidis by trucks, first to the Syrian town of Hasaka on Syrian-Iraqi border and then later further north to Dohuk, a Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish government in Dohuk was assisting those rescued find shelter, according to Kamil Amin, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights.

Thirty to 40,000 Yazidis are estimated to remain on the mount, Amin said. Up until the rescue, Iraqi security forces managed to airlift only 100-150 people a day, according to Marzio Babile of UNICEF.

The Yazidis fled to the mountain after Islamic State forces closed in on their communities in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar. The militant Islamists view the Yazidis as “devil worshippers” and have told them to convert or be killed. Yazidis believe in an ancient religion that precedes Islam.

Amin says that at least 500 Yazidis had been slaughtered by the Islamic State, with unconfirmed reports saying that entire families had been buried alive. While trying to escape, 150 families – mostly comprised of women and children — have been reported to have been kidnapped and taken Islamic State camps in an area close to the Syrian border, according to Iraqi Human Rights Commission member Fadhel al-Gharrawi.

The captives are most likely to be used as human shields for the Islamic State to avoid being attacked by Iraqi forces that are planning a special operation to free the captives, Gharrawi added.

In addition, hundreds of Yazidi women have been taken captive by the group. Reports from families that survived the Isalmic State's onslaught said that the women, primarily those under the age of 35, were being held in schools in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city that fell a number of weeks ago to the militant group. The U.S. has confirmed the reports of the kidnapped women and says that the Islamic State is planning to sell them as slaves or marry them to their fighters.

"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," said Amin, speaking to The Associated Press

The stranded Yazidi population, who fled the brutal crackdown of the Islamic State, is dying from dehydration and starvation on the mountain top. At least 60 children, as well as dozens of elderly, have already perished, according to the latest reports.

As of Sunday night, the U.S. military dropped its fourth load of food and water on the mountain top. A total of 74,000 meals and more than 15,000 gallons of drinking water have been dropped to to the Yazidis so far. Britain and France have promised to join U.S. in the airdrops.   

Meanwhile, Kurdish troops wrested two captured towns from the Islamic State in northern Iraq. "Mahmour and Gweyr are in Kurdish hands," said Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, speaking to CNN Sunday. 

The Islamic State had captured the towns on Wednesday. The group is now reported to be within 20 miles of the Kurdish town of Irbil, where many American personnel are still located.

Kurdish fighters, however, lost the town of Jalawla, a strategic link on the way to Baghdad.

The U.S. began airstrikes over the weekend in an effort to halt the advance of the Islamic State to Irbil. Iraq state media reported that 16 Islamic State fighters were killed in Saturday’s strikes with an additional 45 killed in Sinjar. Sixty fighters were reported injured.

Despite the airstrikes, the Isalmic State was able to take control of Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, located north of Mosul. The U.S. says that catastrophic flooding would be felt as far away as Baghdad if the dam malfunctioned.

In addition to worries about the advance of the Islamic State, a political crisis appears to be brewing in Baghdad between Iraq’s newly elected president Fuad Masum, a Kurd, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki, who is desperately trying to stay in office, has accused Masum of acting against the Iraqi constitution by extending the deadline for the large political coalitions to nominate a candidate for prime minister.

Masum appointed Haider al-Abadi Monday as the new prime minister on live TV.

Yet, security forces loyal to Maliki swarmed into Bagdad in a move that analyst fear may mean that Maliki will attempt a coup.

"You've got Nuri al-Maliki refusing to step down. Now he's mobilized not just security troops loyal to him, but now he's mobilized army units to put tanks in the streets. Some of the bridges have been closed," said military analyst Lt. Col Rick Francona, speaking to CNN. "It looks like he's trying to lock down the city in some sort of confrontation with the president, so this does not portend well."

However, other analysts say the added security may mean that Islamic State fighters are closer to Baghdad than was previously thought, saying that the Iraqi forces may have been sent in to protect government buildings.