US airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam yesterday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told journalists that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, subsequently claimed by the US, which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State (IS) group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River 10 days ago. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
A Yazidi lawmaker and a Kurdish security official meanwhile said IS fighters massacred scores of Yazidi men last Friday afternoon after seizing the village of Kocho.
Both said they based their information on the accounts of survivors and warned that the minority group remains in danger despite US aid drops and airstrikes launched to protect them.
IS fighters had besieged the village for several days and gave its Yazidi residents a deadline to convert to Islam, Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil said yesterday. "When the residents refused to do this, the massacre took place," he said.
Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for Kurdish security forces, said the militants took the women and children of Kocho to the nearby city of Tal Afar, which is controlled by the IS group.
Their accounts could not immediately be confirmed. Areas held by the extremist group are not accessible to reporters.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when IS earlier this month captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border.
The Yazidis practise an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical.
The plight of the Yazidis, tens of thousands of whom were stranded on a desert mountaintop for days, encircled by the Islamic extremists, prompted the US to launch aid lifts as well as airstrikes to help Kurdish fighters get them to safety.
Most of the Yazidis were eventually able to escape to Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region.
Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting since IS's rapid advance across northern and western Iraq began in June.
The decision to launch airstrikes marked the first direct US military intervention in Iraq since the last troops withdrew in 2011, and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group, which has carved out a self-styled Islamic state in large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Yesterday, Britain's Ministry of Defence said it deployed a US-made spy plane over northern Iraq to monitor the humanitarian crisis and movements of Islamic State militants.
It said the converted Boeing KC-135 tanker, called a Rivet Joint, would monitor mobile phone calls and other communication.
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Baghdad yesterday, where he announced his government would provide more than €24m in humanitarian aid to Iraq.
"The first German air force planes are flying to Irbil at this moment to deliver humanitarian aid," Steinmeier said in a joint press conference with Iraq's acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani.
"In the current situation where minorities, especially in northern Iraq, are expelled and murdered, where children are orphaned and women are enslaved, humanitarian aid is extremely important."
Two British planes also landed yesterday in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil carrying humanitarian supplies.
Khalil, the Yazidi lawmaker, said the US must do more to protect those fleeing IS.
"We have been calling on the US administration and Iraqi government to intervene and help the innocent people, but it seems that nobody is listening," Khalil said.
The EU action came as hopes grew for a political breakthrough in Iraq after Sunni tribal leaders and clerics said they would consider joining a new Iraqi government dedicated to rolling back the IS advance.
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's divisive prime minister, finally caved to pressure last Thursday and announced he would step aside.
The leaders from the disaffected Sunni minority, who were marginalised by Mr al-Maliki, said they would present a list of conditions for joining the government of Haider al-Abadi, a Shia technocrat from Mr Maliki's party who has more broad-based support.
With difficult negotiations still ahead, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the hugely influential Shia cleric who has backed Mr al-Abadi, said Iraq now had "a rare positive opportunity" to confront its political and security problems.
The US is clear that saving Iraq from the jihadist menace ultimately depends on reaching a workable political agreement.
Sunni leaders have called on government troops and Shia militias - who became dangerously conflated under Mr al-Maliki - to cease strikes on Sunni cities where Islamic State forces are in control.
"It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing," a spokesman for the Sunni representatives said.
Meanwhile, IS fighters are reported to have captured three villages in northern Syria as they close in on a stronghold of rival rebels.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that the jihadi group's gunmen overran the village of Maled near the town of Marea in Aleppo province late on Friday.
Fayez Abu Quteibah, an activist in the area, said the group also captured two other villages near Marea - Hamidiyeh and Sonbol.
Those gains come days after the extremists overran several other villages and two towns in Aleppo province.
IS's ultimate goal appears to be Marea itself, which is a stronghold of the once-powerful Islamic Front rebel group that has been fighting the jihadists since January.