Middle East Updates / U.S. Says Three Top ISIS Leaders Killed in Airstrikes in Iraq

UN urges Syrian factions to cease fighting in Golan border zone; Iraqi Kurds say they have secured route to besieged Sinjar mountain; At least 1,000 feared dead in ISIS-held village in Syria.

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An EA-18G Growler launches from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Arabian Gulf.
An EA-18G Growler launches from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Arabian Gulf.Credit: Reuters/U.S. Navy

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Rebel fighters prepare to launch a locally made shell towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad at the frontline in Aleppo, Dec. 10, 2014Credit: Reuters

Latest updates:

11:58 P.M. Iraqi Kurdish troops battling ISIS open key corridor in Iraq

Iraqi Kurdish forces battling Islamic State militants managed on Thursday to open up a key corridor so that thousands of people from the country's Yazidi minority who have been trapped on a mountain can flee, said a senior Kurdish official.

The development was an incremental step in the battle to retake the town of Sinjar, at the foothills of the mountain by the same name, which fell to the Islamic State group in early August.

The Kurdish peshmerga troops, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, launched the operation to retake Sinjar on Wednesday.

Masrur Barzani, chancellor of Kurdistan Region Security Council, said the Kurdish forces advanced in battle, establishing the passageway to the mountain on Thursday. He emphasized that Iraqi forces were in no way part of the operation.

"We asked the Iraqi government to provide the ammunition needed for this operation. Unfortunately they did not send the ammunition and their contribution was nothing, to be quite frank with you, especially for this operation," Barzani told The Associated Press in Dohuk, in Iraq's Kurdish region.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis became trapped on the mountain in early August, when the Islamic State extremists captured the towns of Sinjar and Zumar, prompting the exodus. (AP) 

8:34 P.M. U.S. says three top ISIS leaders killed in airstrikes

U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq have killed three of the militant group's top leaders, the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. In an interview with the newspaper, U.S. General Martin Dempsey said the senior leaders were killed in recent weeks as part of expanding effort with partner nations to combat the militants.

Also Thursday, U.S.-led air strikes in Syria focused on the contested city of Kobani near the Turkish border, with six air strikes that destroyed seven ISIS fighting positions, a building and a tactical unit, the U.S. military said. (Reuters)

7:38 P.M. Iraqi Kurds say they have secured route to besieged Sinjar mountain

Kurdish peshmerga fighters have secured a route to Iraq's Sinjar mountain, where hundreds of people had been trapped by Islamic State fighters, Masrour Barzani, head of the Iraqi Kurdish region's national security council said on Thursday.

"The peshmerga have managed to reach the mountain. A vast area has been liberated," Barzani said, adding that 100 Islamic State fighters had been killed. "Now a corridor is open and hopefully the rest of the (Sinjar) region will be freed from Islamic State."

The assault ended the months-long ordeal of hundreds of Iraq's Yazidi religious minority, who had been trapped on the mountain since Islamic State stormed Sinjar and other Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq in August. "All those Yazidis that were trapped on the mountain are now free," Barzani said. The peshmerga had not yet begun to evacuate them, he added. (Reuters) 

6:56 P.M. UN urges warring Syrian forces to cease fighting in Golan border zone

The UN Security Council on Thursday urged Syrian government forces and rebel groups to stop fighting in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel and withdraw from the area which is patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers.

The council strongly condemned recent intense fighting including the use of heavy weapons in the buffer zone, a spillover from the war in Syria. A resolution adopted unanimously by the council extends the mandate of the UN force, known as UNDOF, until June 30.

UNDOF has patrolled the buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war and for nearly four decades it helped enforce a stable truce between the two countries. But the nearly four-year Syrian war has moved into the zone not only with intense fighting but the abduction of peacekeepers by al-Qaida-linked anti-Syrian government militants and other attacks that prompted several countries to withdraw their soldiers. (AP)

5:59 P.M. U.S. general: Islamic State fight to take at least 3 years

The general in command of U.S. forces involved in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria said on Thursday he thought it would take a minimum of three years to achieve a turning point against the group.

Asked at a Pentagon briefing about progress on the ground, Army Lieutenant General James Terry said that the first U.S. air strikes had taken place only four months ago and counseled patience, estimating it would "at least take a minimum of three years." (Reuters)

3:05 P.M. Egypt sends 41 Islamists to prison for rioting

A criminal court in southern Egypt has convicted 41 Islamists on charges of rioting in August last year, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from one to 15 years.

Prosecutors in the city of Assiut had argued that the defendants - all supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi - ordered or participated in riots there shortly after the security forces' deadly breakup of two Islamist sit-ins in Cairo on August 14, 2013.

The Assiut rioting included torching of churches and attacking government buildings.
The court on Thursday also acquitted 60 defendants in the case. The case is one of dozens in which members of Morsi's now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, face charges from violence and membership in a terrorist group, to murder and conspiring with foreign powers. (AP)

2:45 P.M. Yemen's parliament approves new Cabinet

Yemen's parliament on Thursday approved a new government with a comfortable majority following months of violence and political wrangling.

The 301-seat chamber's vote came two days after loyalists of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh derailed a vote of confidence on the government during a raucous session.

The legislature did not release a tally, but more than 200 lawmakers were present and the vote, by show of hands, suggested a large majority approved the 36-member government led by Khaled Bahah.

Parliament's approval of the new government should help ease tensions, but it's unlikely to resolve the power struggle between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who seized control of the capital Sanaa in September and are allied with Saleh loyalists.

12:48 P.M. UN seeks $8.4 billion to help Syria refugees

The United Nations is seeking more than $8.4 billion for next year to help nearly 18 million people affected by the war in Syria.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said Thursday that people who have been displaced within Syria "have exhausted their savings and resources" while nearby countries faced with a refugee influx "are at breaking point."

Some $2.9 billion of next year's requested funding is aimed at addressing needs inside Syria, giving aid and shelter to 12.2 million people.

The UN wants $5.5 billion to help refugees outside Syria and bolster host countries. The aim is to help nearly 6 million people in total and it's working on projections that there will be up to 4.27 million refugees in countries neighboring Syria in a year's time.

12:20 P.M. Iran announces massive military drill near Strait of Hormuz

Iran's state TV says the military will hold a massive drill near the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf next week.

The report Thursday says the weeklong exercise will be carried out over 2.2 million square kilometers (0.85 million square miles) including the eastern part of the passage, through which one fifth of the world oil supply passes.

It says the drill will begin Dec. 25 and include Iranian navy, air force, ground units and the elite Revolutionary Guard, with the troops test-firing new weapons.

11:26 A.M. At least 1,000 feared dead in Islamic State-held village in Syria

At least 1,000 people are feared dead in a Syrian village controlled by Islamic State, a monitoring group said Thursday, a day after activists said bodies of 230 people believed to have been killed by the militant militia were found in the village.

"There are still 1,000 people missing from the Shoueitat tribe. We believe they were all executed by Islamic State fighters when they advanced into the village of al-Kashkiya last summer," Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told dpa.

Activists reported Wednesday that 230 bodies of Shoueitat tribe members were discovered in a mass grave by relatives after the Islamic State allowed them to return to the village in the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria.

If the latest numbers are confirmed, it would bring the number of the Shoueitat people believed to have been executed by the al-Qaeda splinter group since August to around 1,900.

The alleged executions were carried out by Islamic State to retaliate against the tribe's uprising against the jihadist group, according to the Observatory.

Islamic State has in recent weeks agreed to the Shoueitat members' return to their village after they pledged to comply with the radical group's rules - which include a ban on public gatherings and possession of weapons, activists said.

Islamic State controls large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, as well as territory in neighbouring Iraq. (DPA)

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