Iraqi Kurds launch offensive to retake ISIL-held Sinjar

Kurdish Iraqi fighters backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes launched a ground offensive Thursday to retake the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar from the Islamic State.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a series of tweets that warplanes struck dozens of positions in Sinjar and the nearby city of Tal Afar. Both are on the border with Syria.

The ground offensive includes up to 7,500 peshmerga fighters — the Kurdish military.

The extremists, also known as ISIS or ISIL, overran the northern mountain town in August 2014, causing tens of thousands of religious minority Yazidis to flee.

“There is an active firefight with ISIL terrorists in Gulat village in the East front,” the KRSC said in a statement. “Radio chatter of an ISIL (leader) can be heard instructing ISIL terrorists to stay and fight in Sinjar, adding that anyone fleeing the battlefield will be killed,” it added. The KRSC said around 30 militants were killed.

The KRSC said Kurdish forces reached the key Highway 47, which passes by Sinjar, linking the ISIL strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq, cutting off access to Syria and preventing ISIL from making reinforcements. It said the forces also now controlled three villages.

It said its objectives are to clear the militants from Sinjar, take strategic supply routes, and establish “a significant buffer zone” to protect the city and its inhabitants from ISIL fire. It said the number of militants in the town has risen up to 600 due to recent reinforcements by the militants.

Thousands of Yazidis have been slaughtered since the fall of Sinjar and large numbers of Yazidi women have been forced into sexual slavery.

Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish and their religion is influenced by Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian religion). They have been persecuted by different communities in the Middle East for centuries. Some, including ISIL, consider them to be “devil worshipers.”

The U.S. military has not commented on the offensive but it comes as Washington expands its fight against militants in Syria and Iraq.

Late last month, President Obama approved the deployment of about 50 special forces advisers to work alongside local forces battling ISIL in the region.

Jane Onyanga-Omara, and Kim Hjelmgaard