Kurds begin offensive to retake strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar from ISIS

(SOURCE)   Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S. airstrikes, launched an assault Thursday aimed at retaking the strategic town of Sinjar, which ISIS overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and prompted the U.S. to begin its campaign against the militants.

A statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council Thursday obtained by the Associated Press said some 7,500 Peshmerga fighters were closing in on the mountain town from three fronts in an effort to cut off a strategic supply line used by the militants. The statement also says the Kurds wish to establish “a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.”

Peshmerga fighters and the militants exchanged heavy gunfire in the early hours Thursday as Kurdish fighters began their approach.

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter pauses during an operation to retake the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.   (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

“(Peshmerga) troops are holding their position, waiting for reinforcements and more airstrikes so they can then move into the center of the town. Airstrikes have been very important to the operation getting to the point where it is now,” said Maj. Gen. Seme Busal, commander of one of the front lines. He said Peshmerga fighters were in a similar position on the other front lines, waiting for reinforcements or more airstrikes in order to push into the more urban areas of Sinjar.

Capt. Bawer Azad on the central front line said the troops were coordinating their movements. “We are updating each other on the location and who’s making advances where and who’s in what place.”

 A U.S. military official told Fox News the U.S. had carried out 20 airstrikes in the early stages of the assault, which was described as “several thousand Kurds attacking several hundred ISIL.” The official added that U.S. advisers were working with Kurdish commanders in the area, but were set well back from the front lines.

The major objective of the offensive is to cut off one of ISIS’s most active supply lines, Highway 47, which passes by Sinjar and indirectly links the militants’ two biggest strongholds — Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq — as a route for goods, weapons and fighters. Coalition-backed Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border are now working to retake parts of that corridor.

“If you take out this major road, that is going to slow down the movement of (ISIS’s quick reaction force) elements,” Capt. Chance McCraw, a military intelligence officer with the U.S. coalition, told journalists Wednesday. “If they’re trying to move from Raqqa over to Mosul, they’re going to have to take these back roads and go through the desert, and it’s going take hours, maybe days longer to get across.”

However, Sinjar, located at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 30 miles from the Syrian border, is not an easy target. One attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December.

“ISIL has well prepared defenses,” the U.S. military official told Fox News, using another acronym for the terror group. “We expect this will be a tough fight and we expect that ISIL will defend fiercely.” However, the official added that the Peshmergas were expected to secure the city in two to four days, with another week needed to mop up any pockets of ISIS resistance.

Sinjar was captured by ISIS in August 2014 shortly after the extremists seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and blitzed across northern Iraq.

In the Sinjar area, the group inflicted a wave of terror against the minority Yazidi community, members of an ancient religion whom ISIS views as heretics and accuses of worshipping the devil. An untold number were killed in the assault, and hundreds of men and women were kidnapped — the women enslaved and given to militants across the group’s territory in Iraq and Syria, many of the men believed killed, others forced to convert.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, where the militants surrounded them, leaving them trapped and exposed in the blazing heat. The crisis prompted the U.S. to launch air drops of aid to the stranded, and then on August 8, it launched the first round of airstrikes in what would mark the beginning of a broader coalition effort to battle the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

Various Kurdish militias on the town’s edge have been fighting in guerrilla battles for months with IS fighters in Sinjar. The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syria-based People’s Protection Units better known as the YPG, and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi Peshmerga have also held positions further outside the town.

Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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