Iraqi forces retake territory from ISIS, as peshmerga try to win back Sinjar

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Iraqi federal troops and members of their Kurdish and militia allies hold a post in the ethnically mixed Diyala province, which borders Iran and is strategically important since it is a gateway to Baghdad, after reportedly recapturing the Al-Udhaim dam from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group militants on November 14, 2014. AFP / Younis al-Bayati

Published Monday, November 24, 2014

Iraqi security forces and pro-government fighters retook on Sunday areas from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists near the Iranian border, security officials said, while Kurdish forces in northern Iraq draw plans to break ISIS' siege of the Sinjar mountain where hundreds of minority Yazidis remain stranded months after fleeing their homes.

The assault, launched early Sunday northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, is the latest in a series of drives that gained back some territory lost to a sweeping June offensive by ISIS militants.

"Army and police and (militia) forces attacked from the southern and western sides of the Jalawla and Saadiyah (areas), while (Kurdish) peshmerga forces attacked from the northern and eastern sides of Saadiyah," Staff General Abdulamir al-Zaidi told AFP.

Jalawla and Saadiyah are located in the Diyala province which is mainly under the control of the Baghdad government forces and Kurdish peshmerga.

The two areas are important because of their proximity to the autonomous Kurdish region, and to the border with neighboring Iran, which is helping Iraqi forces.

Recapturing the towns would help secure the Kurdish-controlled towns of Kalar and Khanaqin to the north as well as nearby dams and oil fields, peshmerga Secretary-General Jabbar Yawar said.

It would also allow the road to be reopened between Baghdad and Khanaqin, close to the Iranian border.

An army brigadier general said Saadiyah and Jalawla were "the main centers of support for (ISIS) militants," whom security forces are seeking to isolate in the nearby Hamreen mountains.

Accounts differed as to the extent of the gains in the two areas, about 115 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, with some sources saying they had been retaken and others reporting parts were still outside government control.

"We have liberated Jalawla and Saadiyah," said Mala Bakhtiar, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, speaking by phone from a nearby town.

He estimated 50 ISIS fighters may have been killed out of a force of 400.

Explosive devices hidden beside or under roads and planted in buildings are a hallmark of ISIS, taking a toll on its enemies even after it withdraws or is forced out of an area.

Medical and army sources reported that at least 23 peshmerga and militia fighters were killed and dozens were wounded in Sunday's fighting.

Karim al-Nouri, a senior commander in the Badr militia, which took part in the operation, had earlier said bombs killed 12 members of the anti-ISIS forces.

He did not specify whether those killed were from the government security forces, militiamen, tribesmen or Kurdish fighters.

Sunday's operation came on the heels of another that saw the strategic northern town of Baiji retaken last week from the militants and a months-long siege of Iraq's largest oil refinery broken.

Security forces and pro-government fighters also retook the Jurf al-Sakhr area south of Baghdad, which had posed a threat to both the capital and the Shia shrine city of Karbala, which millions of pilgrims visit each year.

Large swathes of land in Iraq have become ISIS strongholds as the extremist group, which declared a "caliphate" in the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, drove Iraq's army – the recipient of $25 billion in US training and funding since the 2003 invasion – to collapse.

The United States, backed by some Western and Arab allies, launched airstrikes against the group in Iraq in August, expanding operations to targets in Syria a month later.

However, the air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS' military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS' advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

Hakim al-Zamili, head of Iraq’s Parliament Security Committee, said on Sunday that neither the coalition forces nor the US are serious in the fight against ISIS.

"The continued occupation of Syrian town of Kobane by (ISIS), despite heavy airstrikes of the US-led coalition forces, proves the combat against the terrorist group is not serious," Zamilli said.

Despite the successful advances against ISIS, the Iraqi army and pro-government fighters still face major challenges in the battle against the jihadist group, which holds large areas of the country, including the key cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah.

ISIS militants have been fighting in the last two days to take full control of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi. On Sunday, Iraqi and foreign jets struck ISIS fighters near central Ramadi, while clashes continued in the city, provincial council member Mahmoud Ahmed Khalaf told Reuters.

While the hardline ISIS group has not advanced into Baghdad, it holds a ring of towns around the capital and has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in several districts of the city.

A car bomb in the town of Yousufiya, 30 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, killed five people on Sunday, police and medics said.

Two other bombs in towns near the capital killed four other people.

Peshmerga to regain Sinjar mountain

Seeking to regain territory and repair pride in his military forces, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, is overseeing efforts to retake the Sinjar mountain, senior party members said.

ISIS attacked the Sinjar area in August, sending thousands of Yazidis fleeing up the mountain, a craggy strip some 65 kilometers long.

Hundreds of Yazidis were executed by ISIS militants who see adherents of the ancient faith derived from Zoroastrianism as devil-worshipers, Iraqi officials and witnesses said.

A senior UN rights official said the onslaught looked like "attempted genocide."

However, Kurdish peshmerga forces have regained between 65 and 75 percent of the ground lost to ISIS in the area, said Halgurd Hikmat, spokesman for the Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry.

But Sinjar's awkward geography – out on a limb to the west – has made it difficult to penetrate.

"Our priority now is Sinjar," said Hikmat. "A plan will be in place within the coming days."

The strategy was to cut off an ISIS supply route between Mosul and Syria which runs along the southern foot of the mountain, Hikmat said, without elaborating further.

Estimates of the number of people still stranded on Sinjar mountain – part of disputed land claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad – vary from 10,000 to fewer than 1,000.

Last month, the peshmerga recaptured the town of Rabia, taking control of a crossing point into Syria and moving closer to Sinjar.

Further advances may not come easily. An intelligence officer in the Rabia area said it would take between two to three weeks to drive ISIS out of the villages north of the Sinjar mountain, because many Arab residents either supported ISIS, or opposed Kurdish encroachment.

A Yazidi fighter told Reuters by telephone from the mountain that he was one of around 1,500 volunteers there, in addition to a contingent of around 150 peshmerga.

Hikmat put the number of peshmerga at 2,000.

"We have received several (types of) small arms from the Kurds, including AK-47s, sniper rifles, mortars and light machine guns," said the volunteer fighter, who gave his name as Barakat.

Politically, Sinjar has been damaging for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – one of two main Kurdish power centers – whose forces were responsible for protecting the area.

Since 2003, the KDP has courted and co-opted minorities in the disputed areas along its southern border by providing them with jobs, security and services in exchange for loyalty.

"The KDP and the Yazidis are inseparable parts of the same body, and that also applies to the KDP and Sinjar," Barzani, who is also head of the KDP as well as commander-in-chief of the peshmerga, told Yazidi members of his last month.

Rival parties have capitalized on the loss of Sinjar to score political points against the KDP.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which crossed into Iraq and saved thousands of Yazidis over the summer has won favor with the minority, many of whom felt betrayed by the peshmerga.

Thousands of Yazidis have since been trained by the YPG in Syria, and a small number of guerrillas remain on the mountain, according to fighters there.

Peshmerga spokesman Hikmat said the YPG would not participate in the Sinjar offensive, but that the peshmerga would coordinate with them to protect the area afterwards.

Controlling Sinjar would put the peshmerga on three sides of Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control in northern Iraq, and allow them to gain positions for any future offensive to retake the city and nearby areas which have been the target of Iraqi and US airstrikes.

"After that, we must coordinate with Baghdad and the coalition (of Western and Gulf Arab states) to get ISIS out of Mosul," said Hikmat.

Mosul has become the focus of the government's military efforts because of both its size and its symbolic status after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a public speech at the Grand Mosque there in July,

Baghdadi, who sees himself as 'caliph' of a so-called Islamic State he has declared in parts of Iraq and Syria, told his fighters they were victorious after years of patience and holy struggle.

(Reuters, AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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