Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S. warplanes and military advisers, launched a major assault Thursday aimed to retake Sinjar, a strategically important town seized last year by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in an onslaught that resulted in tens of thousands of Yazidis fleeing and nudged Washington into anti-ISIL airstrikes.
A statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council on Thursday said some 7,500 peshmerga fighters are closing in on Sinjar from three fronts in an effort to take control of the town and cut off a strategic supply line used by ISIL fighters. The statement also says the Kurds wish to establish "a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery."
Peshmerga fighters and the ISIL forces exchanged heavy gunfire in the early hours Thursday as Kurdish fighters began their approach. Hemin Hawrami, the head of the foreign relations office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said Kurdish fighters had entered Sinjar and were engaged in "house to house" battles against ISIL.
The report could not be independently verified.
Operation Free Sinjar followed a series of dawn air raids on ISIL targets. As well as providing air assaults on ISIL targets, the U.S. has military advisers on the ground alongside Kurdish commanders, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren told Reuters that the American forces were on Mount Sinjar advising and assisting the operation.
"[Peshmerga] troops are holding their position, waiting for reinforcements and more airstrikes so they can then move into the center of the town. Airstrikes have been very important to the operation getting to the point where it is now," said Maj. Gen. Seme Busal, the commander of one of the front lines. He said peshmerga fighters were in a similar position on the other front lines, waiting for reinforcements or more airstrikes in order to push deeper into Sinjar.
The major objective of the offensive is to cut off one of ISIL’s most active supply lines, Highway 47, which passes by Sinjar and indirectly links the fighters' two biggest strongholds — Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq. Coalition-backed Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border are now working to retake parts of the corridor.
"Denying ISIL the use of Highway 47 disrupts their ability to move fighters, supplies and oil destined for the black market," the international coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve said on Twitter.
"If you take out this major road, that is going to slow down the movement of [ISIL's quick reaction force] elements," Capt. Chance McCraw, a military intelligence officer with the U.S. coalition, told journalists Wednesday. "If they're trying to move from Raqqa over to Mosul, they're going to have to take these back roads and go through the desert, and it's going take hours, maybe days longer to get across."
Warplanes in the U.S.-led coalition struck around Sinjar before the offensive, and strikes grew more intense at dawn Thursday as bombs pounded targets outside the town. But Sinjar, at the foot of Mount Sinjar and about 30 miles from the border with Syria, is not an easy target. About 600 ISIL fighters are believed to be in the town.
One attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December.
ISIL fighters have been reinforcing their ranks in Sinjar recently in expectation of an assault, since "this operation has been building for a while," Maj. Michael Filanowski, the operations officer for the U.S.-led coalition, said Wednesday, though he could not give specifics on the size of the ISIL forces there.
Sinjar was captured by ISIL in August 2014 shortly after the group seized Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and blitzed across northern Iraq.
In the Sinjar area, ISIL inflicted a wave of terror against the minority Yazidi community, members of an ancient religion whom ISIL members view as heretics and accuse of worshiping the devil. An untold number of Yazidis were killed, and hundreds of men and women were kidnapped. The women were enslaved and given to fighters across ISIL’s territory in Iraq and Syria. Many of the men are believed killed; others were forced to convert.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, where the fighters surrounded them, leaving them trapped and exposed in the blazing heat. The crisis prompted the U.S. to launch airdrops of aid to the stranded, and then on Aug. 8, it launched the first round of airstrikes in what would become a multinational effort to battle the group in Iraq and Syria.
Various Kurdish militias on the town's edge have been fighting in guerrilla battles for months with ISIL fighters. The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Syria-based People's Protection Units and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi peshmerga have held positions farther outside the town.
Al Jazeera and wire services