Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered his country's armed forces to help the Kurdish military battle an offensive by the armed group Islamic State in northern Iraq that has caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
It was the first sign of cooperation between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, since Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, was taken over by the Islamic State group in June, signaling a degree of rapprochement in the face of the country's deteriorating security crisis.
Iraq's military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said on Monday that Maliki has commanded the air force to provide aerial support to the Kurds in the first sign of cooperation between the two militaries since Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, was captured by the fighters on June 10.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2006 civil war when the Islamic State group captured large swaths of land straddling the Syria-Iraq border with the goal of establishing a self-styled caliphate.
When it overran the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June, Iraqi security forces virtually collapsed, with police and soldiers abandoning arsenals of heavy weapons.
The Islamic State captured the northern towns of Sinjar and Zumar on Saturday, prompting an estimated 40,000 from the minority Yazidi sect to flee, said Jawhar Ali Begg, a spokesman for the community.
The Islamic State has targeted minority communities in areas they have conquered.
"Their towns are now controlled by [Islamic State] and their shrine has been blown up," Begg told The Associated Press. The group gave the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with links to Zoroastrianism, an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death, Begg added.
On Sunday the Islamic State inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds with a rapid advance through three towns to reach the Mosul Dam, acquiring a fifth oil field to fund its operations along the way.
The United Nations said last month that more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence since June, bringing the total this year to 1.4 million, including more than 230,000 Syrian refugees. The group drove ethnic and religious minorities out of Mosul, and attacked mosques and shrines, claiming they contradicted strict Islamic teachings.
Kurdish forces have been battling with the fighters for control of several towns stretching between the province of Nineveh and the Kurdish Iraqi province of Dahuk.
At least 25 Kurdish fighters were killed in clashes with IS on Sunday, and another 120 were wounded, according to Muhssin Mohamed, a Dahuk-based doctor.
A statement on Monday by the Islamic State said it had captured dozens of Kurdish prisoners during the clashes and seized a "large number" of weapons.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it was posted on a website used by the group.
Kurdish state media reported late on Monday that peshmerga units surrounded the town of Shangal and were able to capture it from fighters seeking refuge there.
The move by Maliki to provide support for Kurdish forces is somewhat surprising given recent tensions.
In July, the Kurdish political bloc ended all participation in Iraq's national government in protest over Maliki's accusation that Kurds were allowing terrorists to stay in Irbil.
Currently ruling in a caretaker capacity after an inconclusive election in April, Maliki has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some fellow Shia to step aside to make room for a less polarizing figure.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish region is pressing the Obama administration for sophisticated weapons it says Kurdish fighters need to push back the Islamic State fighters threatening their region.
The requested supplies include tanks, sniper equipment, armored personnel carriers, artillery and ammunition.
The move is likely to further anger Maliki, who may see it as an attempt to circumvent the Baghdad government in a long-standing drive for independence.
For now, however, Maliki seems to have put aside his hostility with the Kurds to try to prevent further gains by the Islamic State.
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