MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq (AFP) — Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes blocked a key Islamic State group supply line with Syria Thursday as they fought to retake the town of Sinjar from the jihadists.
A permanent cut in the supply line would hamper IS’s ability to move fighters and supplies between northern Iraq and Syria, countries where the jihadists hold significant territory and have declared a “caliphate.”
Retaking Sinjar — where IS carried out a brutal campaign of killings, enslavement and rape against the Yazidi minority, members of which are now battling for the town — would also be an important symbolic victory.
Kurdish “peshmerga units successfully established blocking positions along Highway 47 and began clearing Sinjar,” the US-led coalition said, referring to the main route linking IS’s Iraqi hub of Mosul to Syria.
The autonomous Kurdish region’s security council (KRSC) also said the highway had been cut, and that several villages near Sinjar were retaken.
“The attack began at 7:00 am (0400 GMT), and the peshmerga forces advanced on several axes to liberate the center of the Sinjar district,” Major General Ezzeddine Saadun told AFP.
Huge columns of smoke rose over Sinjar as coalition strikes and Kurdish shelling targeted IS positions.
Up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters are to take part in the operation, which aims to cordon off Sinjar, seize IS supply routes “and establish a significant buffer zone to protect (it) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery,” the KRSC said.
“Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to peshmerga forces throughout the operation,” it said.
‘Critical resupply route’
The coalition carried out 24 strikes against IS in the Sinjar area Wednesday and another eight across the border in Syria’s Al-Hol area.
The forces fighting for Sinjar face an estimated 300 to 400 jihadists in the town, Captain Chance McCraw, a US military intelligence officer, told journalists in Baghdad.
But it is not just the fighters that are a danger: IS has had more than a year to build up networks of bombs, berms and other obstacles in Sinjar.
Multiple explosives-rigged vehicles have been hit by coalition air strikes, while the peshmerga destroyed another with a MILAN anti-tank missile, the KRSC said.
“This is part of the isolation of Mosul,” Iraq’s second city, Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international operation against IS, said of the campaign.
“Sinjar sits astride Highway 47, which is a key and critical resupply route” for IS, Warren said in Baghdad.
“By seizing Sinjar, we’ll be able to cut that line of communication, which we believe will constrict (IS’s) ability to resupply themselves, and is a critical first step in the eventual liberation of Mosul.”
The fact that the operation comes at the same time as others against IS in Iraq and Syria also increases pressure on the group.
“It paralyzes the enemy, right — he’s gotta make very tough decisions now on who does he reinforce,” Warren said.
In conjunction with the Sinjar operation, fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces group are battling IS across the border in the Al-Hol area.
And Syrian forces broke a year-long IS siege of a military air base in the country’s north Tuesday with backing from Russian air strikes.
After seizing Mosul and driving south toward Baghdad in June 2014, IS again turned its attention to northern Iraq, pushing Kurdish forces back toward their regional capital Erbil.
IS overran Sinjar in August 2014, attacking the Yazidis in what the United Nations has described as possible genocide.
Thousands of Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the town, and were trapped there by IS. Aiding them was one of Washington’s main justifications for starting its air campaign against the jihadists last year.
With support from international strikes, Kurdish forces have regained significant ground, and had been positioned at the edge of Sinjar for months.
Some Yazidis watched the fight for Sinjar unfold from the mountain where members of their community were earlier besieged.
“I came with two of my children to Mount Sinjar to watch the battle,” said Burjis Saleh, 60, who has been living in a camp for displaced people.
Qassem Khudaida, a 34-year-old who was previously wounded in the foot after volunteering to fight, said: “I am very happy because the battle of liberation has begun… We will definitely return to our city.”
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