ARBIL, Iraq (AFP) – Kurdish forces backed by foreign jets pressed an ambitious operation against the Islamic State group in northern Iraq on Thursday, taking on the jihadists in the heart of their “caliphate”.
After bombing by aircraft of the coalition paved the way for ground troops Wednesday, Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga retook several villages and closed in on the Sinjar area.
It was the capture of Sinjar by IS in early August, and the risk of genocide against its largely Yazidi minority population, that was one of the reasons US President Barack Obama put forward for launching the air war against the jihadists.
Fresh strikes were conducted on Thursday north of Tall Afar, one of the first areas to fall to IS fighters in early June, Anwar Brahim, a senior officer with the Kurds’ asayesh intelligence services, said.
“At around 7:00 am (0400 GMT), there were coalition strikes on Nahyat al-Ayadhiya,” Brahim told AFP. “A large deployment of peshmerga is ready to close in on Sinjar.”
Kurdish forces used heavy artillery to pound IS positions in the area but officials said the fighting was less intense than on Wednesday.
The US military said “45 strikes were conducted in support of the peshmerga and Iraqi security forces operating in the region”.
Footage released by the Kurdish government showed the charred carcasses of IS vehicles destroyed by air strikes and the IS black flag still flying over abandoned positions.
The peshmerga said they recaptured eight villages and killed around 80 IS fighters in the initial phase of the two-pronged offensive, launched from Rabia on the Syria border and Zumar on the shores of Mosul dam lake.
Brahim, who is the Kurdish intelligence chief for the Zumar area, said six Kurdish troops were killed and 31 wounded in the first day of fighting.
Kurdish leaders said one of the objectives of Wednesday’s offensive was to “break the siege on Mount Sinjar”, which was the scene in August of a dramatic battle.