Kurdish forces in Iraq have gained control of parts of the main highway connecting two “Islamic State” strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Backed by US airstrikes, the operation aims to take back the town of Sinjar.
Kurdish peshmerga troops in Iraq, backed by US airstrikes, have taken control of a key highway connecting “Islamic State”-controlled Mosul with its de facto capital, Raqqa, in Syria. Kurdish forces are attempting to retake territory that was lost last year – a loss which prompted the United States to intervene to protect the minority Kurdish Yezidis.
Nearly 7,500 Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga launched a long-planned offensive on the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar early on Thursday morning, in what anti-IS forces hope will deal a severe blow the jihadi organization. The peshmerga’s main objective has been to take control of Highway 47.
“By controlling Highway 47, which is used by Da’ish [IS] to transport weapons, fighters, illicit oil, and other commodities that fund their operations, the coalition intends to increase pressure on Da’ish and isolate their components from each other,” the US-led coalition said in a statement.
Since the assault began, Kurds have captured several villages and are fighting to clear the town of Sinjar, where up to 800 IS fighters have dug in. Communications intercepts between IS fighters indicate they have been ordered to hold their ground and fight to the end.
By evening, peshmerga forces tied to Iraqi President Massoud Barzani’s KDP had claimed to have taken the main IS military compound in Sinjar. The claim could not be verified.
To Sinjar’s east, forces tied to the Turkish Kurdish militant group PKK and two Yezidi units also launched attacks on IS positions, taking other portions of Highway 47 near the Syrian border.
Symbolic and Strategic
Retaking Sinjar would be a symbolic victory for the Kurds and the coalition. IS took the town last year after peshmerga forces allied with Barzani’s KDP collapsed, leaving open to slaughter the minority Kurdish Yezidis, who follow a syncretic religion deemed heretical to hard-line Islamists.
Thousands of Yezidis were forced to flee, hundreds were killed and Yezidi girls and women were enslaved. The plight of the Yezidis brought the barbarity of IS to international attention.
A wider-scale slaughter of the Yezidis was prevented by the US-led air campaign, and forces tied to the Turkish Kurdish PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the YPG.
The collapse of KDP forces opened deep divisions between the main Iraqi Kurdish party and Yezidis, some of whom were later trained to defend themselves by the PKK and are now participating in the Sinjar offensive. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga also trained Yezidi units.
Thursday’s operation was repeatedly delayed due to feuding between Kurdish factions and the KDP.
The Sinjar offensive comes as PKK-affiliated forces in Syria, the YPG and Arab militias are planning an assault on Raqqa, backed by US forces. Retaking Sinjar would hinder IS’ ability to move forces and equipment between Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
cw/sms (AFP, AP,dpa, Reuters)