Using long convoys of homemade gun-trucks and American-supplied armored vehicles, Kurdish peshmerga forces opened a long-delayed offensive on Thursday to retake Sinjar, the northern Iraqi city whose capture in August 2014 triggered the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State.
By the end of the day, the Kurds had seized control of a critical highway junction, had occupied several villages on the outskirts of Sinjar and had made a push toward the city of Tal Afar, another Islamic State stronghold. But Sinjar itself remained under extremist control.
The operation, which had been in preparation for months, is the largest undertaken by the Kurdish forces since 1991, when they rallied to force the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from the region now known as the Kurdistan Regional Government.
An estimated 7,500 Kurdish troops took part in Thursday’s offensive. Notably, no regular Iraqi army units appeared to join in Thursday’s fighting; the Kurds have long complained that Baghdad refuses to supply them with modern weaponry and have openly feuded with the Iraqi government about control of areas that lie outside the Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders, as Sinjar and Tal Afar do.
The operation, which began at dawn, was backed by scores of U.S. airstrikes; in the previous month, Pentagon officials said, U.S. aircraft had conducted 250 strikes on Islamic State targets in the area.
No regular Iraqi army units appeared to join in Thursday’s fighting.
Fighting was fierce. The Islamic State responded to the Kurds’ push toward Tal Afar along Highway 47 with heavy mortar fire and a series of suicide bombing attempts that were thwarted by peshmerga heavy weapons. In one case, an oil tanker truck loaded with gasoline and explosives was hit, setting off a huge explosion and a ferocious fire that blocked access to the highway for a short period.
According to Kurdish officials, at least five suicide car bombs were destroyed by either airstrikes or ground fire. At least 30 Islamic State fighters had been killed in the operations, Kurdish officials said. Kurdish casualties were not announced.
The operation, which Kurdish officials had touted but that received little notice in Baghdad, is seen as critical for both strategic and morale reasons. Efforts to eject the Islamic State from areas it controls have generally failed, notably in Ramadi and Fallujah, the largest cities in Iraq’s largest province, and Kurdish forces until Thursday had not previously confronted the Islamic State outside the Kurdish area of control.
Much of Thursday’s offensive involved airstrikes, with Kurdish forces driving into recently hit villages to clear out remaining Islamic State fighters. In one such operation, led by Kak Saidi, a 60-year-old peshmerga veteran, 15 Kurdish fighters cheered each explosion from nearby airstrikes with the words “Hajj Obama,” a Muslim honorific for the American president.
Islamic State fighters sniped at the men but rarely stood and fought, preferring to melt away before they were hit with American air power. After firing from a ridge line about a half-mile away, a pair of Islamic State fighters escaped on motorbike, leaving their observation post full of clothes, food and a homemade bomb the Kurdish troops easily dismantled.
Blue cables stretched throughout the mountains, the Islamic State’s power supply system that linked observation posts and fighting positions with generators that had either been destroyed by airstrikes or moved in anticipation of the offensive.
“Even in a cave on the mountain, they have electricity,” joked Sherko, a young Kurdish special forces fighter who had the unpleasant task of being wrapped in a bright orange poncho, used to alert coalition planes to Kurdish forces in an effort to prevent friendly fire incidents.
Posting lookouts on four ridges to check all directions, the men spent hours ensuring that the Sinjar mountains could not be used to ambush the slow-moving convoy on the road below as it pushed toward Tal Afar, a majority Sunni Muslim city that is home for many Islamic State fighters.
U.S. officials said they expected it would take two to four days to secure Sinjar but that the city itself was so heavily mined that “stabilization operations” were expected to last at least another week as the city was cleared of bombs, mines and traps. At least five smaller villages surrounding Sinjar appeared to be under the control of the Kurdish forces, according to a press statement from Kurdish officials.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero