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MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq, Nov 12, (Agencies): Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led 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, two countries where the jihadists hold significant territory and have declared a “caliphate”. And retaking Sinjar — where IS carried out a brutal campaign of killings, enslavement and rape against the Yazidi minority, members of which are now taking part in the battle 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 against IS said in a statement, referring to the main route linking the jihadists’ Iraqi hub of Mosul to Raqqa in Syria. And the autonomous Kurdish region’s security council (KRSC) also said the highway had been cut, and that multiple 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 centre 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 in the town.
Up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters are to take part in the operation, which aims to retake Sinjar “and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the (town) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery,” the KRSC said. “Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to Peshmerga forces throughout the operation,” it said.
The coalition carried out 24 strikes against IS in the Sinjar area on Wednesday and eight more 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 jihadist fighters they will have to contend with: IS has had more than a year to build up networks of bombs, berms and other obstacles in Sinjar. “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 battle for Sinjar. “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 Sinjar operation comes at the same time as others against IS in Iraq and Syria also increases pressure on the group. “It paralyses 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 regime forces broke a yearlong IS siege of a military air base in the country’s north on Tuesday with backing from Russian air strikes.
After seizing Mosul and driving south toward Baghdad in a lightning offensive in June 2014, IS again turned its attention to northern Iraq, pushing Kurdish forces back toward their regional capital Arbil. IS overran the Sinjar area in August 2014, attacking the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis in what the United Nations has described as a possible genocide.
Thousands of Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the town, and were trapped there by IS, and aiding them was one of Washington’s main justifications for starting its air campaign against the jihadists last year. 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. “I am very happy because the battle of liberation has begun, and we will definitely return to our city,” said Qassem Khudaida, a 34-year-old who was wounded in the foot after volunteering to fight.
With support from international strikes, Kurdish forces have regained significant ground from IS, and have been positioned on Mount Sinjar at the edge of town for months. Islamic State, the hardline Sunni group suspected by Western intelligence officials of playing a role in the crash of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt two weeks ago, overran Sinjar more than a year ago.
Islamic State’s killing and enslaving of thousands of the northern town’s Yazidi residents focused international attention on the group’s violent campaign to impose its radical ideology and prompted Washington to launch its air offensive.
The US expectation is that it would take two to four days to secure Sinjar and another week to finalise clearing operations, a US military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. US military advisers are with Kurdish commanders near Sinjar mountain but are positioned well back from the fighting, a US military spokesman said. Colonel Warren told Reuters some US advisers were also on Sinjar mountain working with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to advise and assist with the development of targets for air strikes.
The US military estimated that 60 to 70 Islamic State fighters had been killed in US-led coalition air strikes so far on Thursday, said Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition effort against Islamic State. Islamic State uses Highway 47 to transport weapons, fighters and illicit commodities to fund its operations, said the coalition, which conducted more than 250 air strikes in the past month across northern Iraq