Kurdish capture of Sinjar just a start on beating Islamic State

A fighter from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey, celebrates his group's role in the liberation of Sinjar, Iraq.
A fighter from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey, celebrates his group's role in the liberation of Sinjar, Iraq. McClatchy

For the first time in more than a year, Sinjar was free Friday from the Islamic State, whose fighters fled a combined onslaught of American air power and Kurdish ground troops.

But hundreds of the city’s former residents who rushed to Sinjar’s outskirts in hopes of seeing their homes once again were barred from entry, as the new Kurdish occupiers worried about the hundreds of improvised explosive devices that the Islamic State fighters had left behind.

For reporters allowed in briefly with Kurdish troops, the force of coalition air power was apparent throughout the streets of Sinjar. More than 250 airstrikes had hit Islamic State positions in the city over the last month. Shops, homes and hospitals lay in ruins.

Islamic State forces were nowhere in evidence, and if there ever had been 600 extremist fighters in the town, they had slipped out without mounting much of a defense. By dawn Friday, only a handful of snipers and aspiring suicide bombers remained to greet the official forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government and guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party – the infamous PKK that Turkey considers a terrorist group – when they took control of the city.

It was a rare victory in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, and it represented the closing of a circle. It was the capture of Sinjar, and the plight of the thousands of Yazidis who’d fled into the nearby hills to escape the Islamic State, that prompted President Barack Obama to order the start of the American bombing campaign.

Coupled with word from Washington that a U.S. drone strike likely had killed the black-garbed British jihadist who’d beheaded Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff in grisly videos, it was also a needed boost for Obama’s flailing policy of keeping American ground troops out of the anti-Islamic State campaign, which critics have called ill-conceived and ineffective.

“ISIL defeated and on the run,” the Kurdistan regional security council said in a tweet, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Almost as soon as the Kurdish government declared the town secure at 10:20 a.m. local time, hundreds of displaced Yazidis who’ve been living in refugee camps nearby began pushing to return home. The peshmerga fighters closed the roads to block the human flood, explaining that it could be months before technicians would be able to neutralize the improvised bombs, mines and unexploded coalition munitions that cover the devastated city and nearby villages.

Other uncomfortable questions also loom in the coming months. Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani, made a dramatic appearance on the outskirts of the town, where he held a news conference and declared that Sinjar would henceforth be considered a part of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s area of control. It was a warning to the PKK that it would not be allowed to rule here and a stunning slap at the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, which until the Islamic State’s capture of the town in August 2014 had been the authority here.

“Only the flag of the Kurdish Regional Government will fly over Sinjar,” Barzani said through microphones placed on a wall of sandbags, with Sinjar still burning in the distance.

The operation, which had been delayed as Barzani’s peshmerga troops and the PKK and its allies bickered over who would take the lead and the credit for the success, had been delayed for weeks as political discussions took precedence over military preparations.

But on Friday there was little evidence of tension between the Kurdish factions on Sinjar’s rubble-strewn streets. Flags of all factions flew from destroyed buildings, and fighters often assumed to be bitter rivals mingled happily in the badly damaged city.

“This is my city and it has been returned to us,” said one resident who described himself as the unofficial mayor of the town, claiming allegiance to the PKK. “Daash might have come from America, but America and the Kurds have removed it,” he added, alluding to the Islamic States’ roots as al Qaida in Iraq, the group that formed to combat the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003.

“Obama and his bombs, the Kurds and their courage, and the Yazidis and their dignity freed Sinjar,” said a local Yazidi farmer who identified himself as Hajj Mohammed and who had arrived at the scene carrying a World War II-era rifle. “We will now destroy Daash from the entire world,” he pledged, using a common Arabic term for the Islamic State.

Barzani, too, saw the capture of Sinjar as just a step in the campaign against the Islamic State. “The liberation of Sinjar will have a big impact on liberating Mosul,” he said, referring to the northern Iraqi city whose fall to the Islamic State in June 2014 set off the extremists’ onslaught across northern and central Iraq.

Ending Islamic State control elsewhere still is an uncertain goal for the future. The group controls the major Sunni Muslim cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, as well as Mosul and Tal Afar, just miles from Sinjar but with large Arab Sunni populations, much more challenging objectives than Sinjar.

Kurdish forces got a taste of what might be expected from a campaign to free those places on Thursday, when a push toward Tal Afar was met with mortar fire, snipers and at least five attempted suicide bombers, far stronger defenses than anything attempted to hold Sinjar.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero