Kurdish forces recapture Islamic State-held towns

Susannah George
Associated Press

Sinjar, Iraq – — Dealing a double blow Friday to the Islamic State group, Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed into the strategic town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, and a coalition of Arab, Christian and Kurdish rebel factions recaptured another town from the militants across the border in Syria.

The Kurdish forces raised their flag in the center of Sinjar, and a top official said it was liberated, although U.S. and Kurdish military officials urged caution in declaring victory in the major offensive.

The fighters encountered little resistance, at least initially, suggesting that many of the Islamic State militants may have pulled back in anticipation of the advance. It was also possible that they could be biding their time before striking back.

The offensive to retake Sinjar was launched Thursday by the Kurdish militia fighters known as the peshmerga forces, and they succeeded in cutting a key nearby highway and retaking more than about 60 square miles of territory from the Islamic State group. Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition supported the offensive, dubbed Operation Free Sinjar.

By cutting the road, Iraqi and coalition officials said the extremists will struggle to maintain a flow of supplies to Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which has been under militant control since June 2014. Without direct access on Highway 47, the militants would have to travel off-road for several hours to travel between their strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

Sinjar has been under the control of the self-described Islamic State group for more than a year. It was overrun by the extremists as they swept across Syria and Iraq in August 2014, leading to the killing, enslavement and flight of thousands from the Yazidi religious minority.

“We promised, we have liberated Sinjar,” Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told fighters in Sinjar.

Across the border in Syria, a rebel coalition known as the Democratic Forces of Syria seized the town of Hol in northern Hassakeh province.

The U.S.-backed offensive to retake Islamic State-held areas in the southern parts of Hassakeh is coinciding with the push to recapture Sinjar.