Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S. airstrikes, launched an assault Thursday aimed at retaking the strategic town of Sinjar, which ISIS overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and prompted the U.S. to begin its campaign against the militants.
A statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council Thursday obtained by the Associated Press said some 7,500 Peshmerga fighters were closing in on the mountain town from three fronts in an effort to cut off a strategic supply line used by the militants. 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 militants exchanged heavy gunfire in the early hours Thursday as Kurdish fighters began their approach.
“(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, 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 into the more urban areas of Sinjar.
Capt. Bawer Azad on the central front line said the troops were coordinating their movements. “We are updating each other on the location and who’s making advances where and who’s in what place.”
A U.S. military official told Fox News the U.S. had carried out 20 airstrikes in the early stages of the assault, which was described as “several thousand Kurds attacking several hundred ISIL.” The official added that U.S. advisers were working with Kurdish commanders in the area, but were set well back from the front lines.
The major objective of the offensive is to cut off one of ISIS’s most active supply lines, Highway 47, which passes by Sinjar and indirectly links the militants’ two biggest strongholds — Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq — as a route for goods, weapons and fighters. Coalition-backed Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border are now working to retake parts of that corridor.
Heavy smoke billows from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led strikes on Thursday, to retake the town from the Islamic State group. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)