Kurdish Iraqi fighters cut Islamic State supply line as a major offensive begins

Supported by U.S.-led airstrikes, Kurdish Iraqi troops on Thursday seized part of a highway that is used as a vital supply line by the Islamic State group, a key initial step in a major offensive to retake the strategic town of Sinjar from the militants.

SINJAR, Iraq — Supported by U.S.-led airstrikes, Kurdish Iraqi troops on Thursday seized part of a highway that is used as a vital supply line by the Islamic State group, a key initial step in a major offensive to retake the strategic town of Sinjar from the militants.

The town was overrun by the extremists as they rampaged across Iraq in August 2014, leading to the killing, enslavement and flight of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community. The U.S. later launched an air campaign against the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL, ISIS and, in Arabic, as Daesh.

Hours into Thursday’s operation, the Kurdish Regional Security Council said its forces controlled a section of 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 trying to retake sections of that corridor as part of Operation Free Sinjar.

“By controlling Highway 47, which is used by Daesh to transport weapons, fighters, illicit oil and other commodities that fund their operations, the coalition intends to increase pressure … and isolate their components from each other,” a coalition statement said.

It said more than 150 square kilometres (95 miles) of territory had been retaken from the Islamic State group.

The coalition said 24 airstrikes were carried out over the past day, striking nine militant tactical units, nine staging areas and destroying 27 fighting positions, among other targets. Coalition aircraft have conducted more than 250 airstrikes in the past month across northern Iraq.

The Kurdish fighters also said they had secured the villages of Gabarra, on the western front, and Tel Shore, Fadhelya and Qen on the eastern front.

About 7,500 peshmerga fighters closed in on Sinjar from three sides, the Kurdish council said. In addition to taking the town and the highway, the operation aimed to establish “a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.”

Heavy gunfire broke out early Thursday as peshmerga fighters began their approach amid aerial bombardment.

U.S. special operations forces were operating from a hill above the fighting in Sinjar, said Col. Steven Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad. U.S. advisers were also positioned with Kurdish commanders, set back from the front line and behind Sinjar mountain, to remain away from the crossfire, Warren said.

According to U.S. guidelines, the U.S. forces have stay away from the front lines and the risk of enemy fire, he said, so they are operating from safe locations on Sinjar mountain.

Warren said two teams of commandos were working with the Kurds to locate enemy targets and call the information in to the Joint Operations Center in Irbil, where military officials then direct coalition aircraft flying in the area to conduct the airstrikes.

This is only the second military operation in Iraq in which U.S. special operations forces have moved closer to the front lines to help Kurdish forces identify targets and help direct airstrikes against the Islamic State. But while the strategy might be effective in northern Iraq, where the ethnic divisions are relatively clear, a similar use of commandos may not work in other parts of Iraq, such as Ramadi, where the battle lines are not as evident.

Warren said the first time that commandos worked with Kurdish peshmerga forces like this was during Operation Clover Field near Kirkuk about a month ago. The geography is flatter there, so the U.S. forces were stationed about two miles from the front lines.

Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on regional Islamic extremist groups, said during the current operation, Kurdish forces will aim to cut off eight unpaved roads used by the Islamic State for smuggling oil, exchanging weapons and ferrying militants between Syria and Iraq.

“Sinjar is not important for Daesh as an area. What is important is this road,” al-Hashimi said. He added that the highway is about 120 kilometres (75 miles) long and the battles are for control of about 10 per cent of it.

Clouds of smoke above Sinjar were making it difficult for coalition warplanes to carry out airstrikes as thousands of peshmerga fighters moved toward the town from the east and west and massed at the outskirts, Kurdish officials said.

Aircraft struck around Sinjar ahead of the long-awaited offensive, with bombardment growing more intense at dawn.

The town, located at the foot of Mount Sinjar about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the Syrian border, is not an easy target. An attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December. The militants have been reinforcing their ranks in Sinjar recently in expectation of an assault, although the coalition was not able to give specifics on the size of the IS forces.

“On the radio, we hear (IS) calling for reinforcements from Syria,” said Rebwar Gharib, a deputy sergeant on the central front line.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “any efforts to push back Daesh are to be welcomed.”

But the spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said it was critical that any operation be done with international humanitarian law.

Sinjar was captured by the Islamic State group shortly after the extremists seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The extremists inflicted a wave of terror in the Sinjar area against the Yazidis, members of an ancient religion whom the Islamic State views as heretics and devil-worshippers. An untold number were killed in last year’s assault, and hundreds of men and women were kidnapped. The women were enslaved and given to militants in Iraq and Syria, while many of the men were believed to be killed or forced to convert.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, where the militants surrounded them, leaving them trapped and exposed in the blazing heat.

The crisis prompted the U.S. to launch air drops of aid to the stranded. On Aug. 8, 2014, it launched the first round of airstrikes in what would mark the beginning of a broader coalition effort to battle the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

In December, Kurdish fighters in northwestern Iraq managed to drive the militants out of areas on the other side of the mountain, opening a corridor that helped many of the remaining Sinjaris to escape. Those Kurdish fighters then tried to advance into the town of Sinjar itself but were fought off by the militants.

Various Kurdish militias on the town’s edge have been fighting guerrilla battles for months with IS, damaging or destroying much of the picturesque town of ancient, narrow streets lined with modest stone homes. The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi Kurdish fighters have also held positions farther outside the town.

Just Posted

Good-bye ice and snow, hello potholes on Red Deer roads

City workers will be spending 20 hours a day on various road repairs

Fog advisory in effect for Red Deer, central Alberta

Heavy fog is affecting visibility for central Alberta drivers Saturday morning. A… Continue reading

Climate change’s impact on outdoor hockey discussed in Red Deer

Red Deer River Watershed Alliance held a forum Friday at the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame

Collision between Red Deer transit bus and truck investigated by RCMP

No one on bus was hurt, truck driver had minor injuries

Eckville man facing about 80 child sexual exploitation charges in court

More than half a million photos and videos found on electronic devices

WATCH: Fashion show highlights Cree designers

The fashion show was part of a Samson Cree Nation conference on MMIW

Montreal priest stabbed during mass leaves hospital; suspect to be charged

MONTREAL — A Catholic priest who was stabbed as he was celebrating… Continue reading

No winning ticket for Friday night’s $35.7 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the $35.7 million jackpot… Continue reading

New report details impact of proposed NS spaceport in event of explosion or fire

HALIFAX — The head of a company proposing to open Canada’s only… Continue reading

Quebec man convicted in Mafia-linked conspiracy deported to Italy

MONTREAL — Michele Torre, a Quebec man convicted in 1996 for his… Continue reading

Republican Karl Rove says conservatives need more than simplistic slogans

OTTAWA — Legendary Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove, known for his no-holds-barred… Continue reading

B.C. hospital’s use as shelter ‘clarion call’ about housing crisis, says mayor

The 10-bed regional hospital that serves the medical needs of 5,000 people… Continue reading

Puddle splashing: A rite of spring

Is there anything more fun than driving through water-filled potholes in the… Continue reading

Special evaluations can help seniors cope with cancer care

Before she could start breast cancer treatment, Nancy Simpson had to walk… Continue reading

Most Read