KURDISH forces have mounted what is believed to be their largest and most sustained assault against Islamic State (IS) militants in the border region between Iraq and Syria.
Some 8,000 troops – supported by scores of US air sorties – have spent the week fighting IS positions in a two-pronged attack, ending the so-called siege of Mount Sinjar.
Thousands of displaced Iraqis, ethnic Yazidis and others have been trapped there for months, ever since IS took control of the area in August.
Kurdish peshmerga forces moved into position early this week before unleashing waves of attacks on IS targets on Wednesday, finally breaking through and securing their gains yesterday.
Between 45 and 50 air strikes on IS positions were carried out by US warplanes. These were said to have been directed mainly at senior IS figures to ensure their chain of command and ability to direct their own fighters was disrupted while the Kurdish forces advanced.
Officials have been investigating claims that Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, the deputy in charge of IS forces in Iraq, was among those killed.
The offensive, co-ordinated after weeks of planning, is thought to have reclaimed some 300 square miles in the strategically important Zumar and Sinjar areas over the past 48 hours.
It came as fears grew that IS planned a further genocide against the hundreds of civilians trapped in the area.
The opening of a large corridor to allow the stricken Yazidi people passage to safety is being regarded as the Kurds’ biggest achievement.
Many of those rescued were being tended to by aid workers and medical staff yesterday.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
Chancellor of the Kurdistan regional security council, Masrur Barzani, told reporters: “It was a very big operation and thankfully it was concluded very successfully.”
The Sinjar mountains stretch for about 62 miles through Kurdistan. They are traditionally safe havens in times of conflict for the Yazidis and some 40,000 fled there when IS attacked the southern town of Sinjar. As IS militants closed in on them, a joint operation by Iraqi forces, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), People’s Protection Unit and Kurdish peshmerga fought their way in to rescue some 30,000 of them.
Conflicting reports suggest as many as 500 men and children have been killed, beheaded and buried by IS fighters. Another 300 Yazidi women are claimed to have been taken as slaves and wives, with numerous reports of girls being raped.
Experts estimate IS still has a strong presence in about a third of the area, but Kurdish and US commanders report most IS fighters have been retreating into Syria.
Most of the buildings seized were daubed with IS slogans, marking the boundary of the territory they had seized.
They remain embedded in Mosul and Tal Afar. It would require multi-country co-operation to flush them out, with Arabs, Sunnis and Iraqis involved along with the Kurds to achieve likely success.
Central government troops led by the Iraqi army’s elite anti-terrorism Golden Brigade have already taken the fight to IS in the Kasek neighbourhood of Tal Afar.
Shiite militia are thought to have made gains in and around the east of the country and south of Baghdad, further squeezing IS out of the so-called caliphate powerbase between Syria and Iraq. Some eight villages have been recaptured, and it was reported some 80 militants had been killed in the latest fighting.
The operation is expected to continue through the weekend and for at least another week.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS