The Kurdish regional president in Iraq said that peshmerga forces have taken the northern town of Sinjar from Islamic State (IS) militants in an offensive backed by US-led airstrikes.
Masoud Barzani made the announcement during a press conference held on top of Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the town. Earlier, the Kurdistan regional security council said forces had entered Sinjar "from all directions" to begin clearing the town of IS militants, seizing key buildings in the process. It said IS militants were "defeated and on the run".
A Kurdish flag was raised in the town centre after the forces encountered minimal resistance. Heavy bursts of gunfire could be heard in the town as fighters filed down the hill overlooking the town from the north, some with rocket-propelled grenades on their shoulders, said witnesses.
Sinjar was seized 15 months ago by Islamic State forces, who massacred or enslaved the local Yazidi community and ousted other minorities from the Nineveh plains. An offensive to retake the town was launched late on Wednesday as Kurds, backed by US-led airstrikes, severed a major supply line between the militant group's stronghold in eastern Syria, and Mosul, their seat of power in Iraq.
As Kurdish forces took surrounding villages on Thursday, a commander said he had never seen IS (also known as Daesh) so vulnerable. “For the last 15 months that I have been fighting Daesh, I have never seen them so weak, they were literally running away,” said Col Kamran Hawrami. “Our objective is to free Sinjar and the surrounding areas. The fighting is continuing on all fronts but we have passed by bodies of Daesh [fighters].”
Hundreds of Yazidi forces are also taking part in the attack on and one of their commanders said coalition air attacks had been key to the offensive. Haydar Shasho, a top Yazidi commander and the head of the Sinjar protection force, who was east of Sinjar, in the village of Sulakh, said: “The coalition air cover was very helpful and if it was not for air support, it would be very difficult to reach the objective of the offensive. Sinjar town is important to Yazidi people because without Sinjar, Yazidis do not exist.”
The operation is the largest coordinated effort so far to seize ground from IS and a test of US plans to defeat the group using the Kurds as proxies. Separately, the Iraqi military began an assault on Friday on the IS-held city of Ramadi, 96km west of Baghdad.
Kurdish officials said the attack on Sinjar was not part of long-mooted plans to retake either Mosul or Raqqa, across the Euphrates river in Syria. However, they acknowledged that if the operation was successful, it would put additional pressure on IS in both cities. Although heavily targeted throughout the campaign, IS has kept a supply line between Raqqa and Mosul largely open.
Various Kurdish militias on the edge of Sinjar have been fighting guerrilla battles for months with IS, damaging or destroying much of the picturesque city of ancient, narrow streets lined with modest stone houses.
Meanwhile Iraq’s military said on Friday its forces had advanced on three fronts to begin clearing Islamic State militants from the western city of Ramadi, but police and government officials said progress was extremely slow.