Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have launched an offensive to retake Sinjar, a strategic town near the Syrian border, from Islamic State militants,BBC reports. The campaign is supported by air strikes by the US-led coalition.
Recapturing Sinjar would effectively cut off the supply line between the IS strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul. When the town fell to IS last year, tens of thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority were trapped after fleeing up Mount Sinjar.
Hundreds of Yazidi men were killed and thousands of Yazidi women and girls captured and used as sex slaves. Most of the Yazidis on the mountain were evacuated but there thousands are still there.
The campaign to retake Sinjar is led by about 6,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces in alliance with some 1,500 Yazidi fighters known as the Sinjar Resistance Units and about 300 Kurdish PKK guerrillas.
The BBC’s Ahmed Maher in Baghdad says for the Kurds the campaign is more than just a military operation – Sinjar is symbolically significant because it is part of the disputed territories claimed by both the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region and the central government.
The Yazidi community accused the Kurds of letting them down, saying the Peshmerga withdrew from the town allowing IS militants to take over.
The IS attack on Sinjar in August 2014 was one of the reasons the US began air strikes against IS positions in Iraq, amid a warning of genocide. Yazidis, whose religion includes elements of several faiths, are considered infidels by IS.
The offensive by Kurdish forces began in earnest at dawn, with a series of coalition air strikes sending up plumes of smoke around the town of Sinjar.
It lies at the foot of a rugged mountain of the same name, and is strategically placed near the border with Syria. Peshmerga forces began opening up with rocket fire, and their troops started moving down to join an advance on the ground.
Kurdish forces have controlled part of the town since an attack months ago. But IS militants put up strong resistance, leading to a prolonged stalemate.
The Kurds are clearly determined to win Sinjar back. They are calling this Operation Free Sinjar and say they are throwing 7,500 fighters into the battle. Sinjar is one of the biggest towns they lost last year, though it was its mainly Yazidi population who suffered the most.
The Kurds are hoping for a swift victory. But advancing against IS in built-up terrain has proved slow and dangerous in the past. The militants are adept at planting booby-traps and other bombs, often causing heavy casualties.