Iraqi Kurds break Mount Sinjar siege, free Yazidis

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A young Iraqi Kurdish woman smiles with the Kurdish flag decorating her face during the celebration of Flag Day in the northern city of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on December 17, 2014. AFP / Safin Hamed

Published Friday, December 19, 2014

Kurdish peshmerga fighters have fought their way to Iraq's Mount Sinjar and freed hundreds of people trapped there by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, a Kurdish leader said on Thursday.

"The peshmerga have managed to reach the mountain. A vast area has been liberated," said Masrour Barzani, the intelligence chief for the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG), adding that 100 ISIS fighters had been killed.

"Now a corridor is open and hopefully the rest of the (Sinjar) region will be freed from Islamic State," Barzani said, using an alternative name for ISIS.

The assault ended the months-long ordeal of hundreds of people from Iraq's Yazidi religious minority, who had been besieged on the mountain since ISIS stormed Sinjar and other Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq in August.

ISIS, which declared a "caliphate" over territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, seized the second city of Mosul and swept through the country's heartland in June in matter of days, targeting minority groups.

"All those Yazidis that were trapped on the mountain are now free," Barzani said, adding that the peshmerga had not yet begun to evacuate them.

Mohammed Kojar, the peshmerga commander of the area, said troops had reached the mountain and secured a road that would enable people to leave.

"Tomorrow most of the people will come down from the mountain," Kojar told AFP by phone, explaining the offensive had secured a corridor northeast of the mountain.

"This operation represents the single biggest military offensive against ISIS and the most successful," a statement from Barzani's office said.

Around 8,000 peshmerga fighters began their offensive on Wednesday to break the jihadists' siege of the mountain and the town of Sinjar. They advanced from Zumar, east of Sinjar, recapturing eight villages of 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) over two days.

Kurdish officials said the operation had dealt the jihadists a blow by cutting their supply lines and forcing them to retreat to urban bastions such as Tal Afar and Mosul, their main hub.

In early August, the Kurds joined the battle against ISIS after the group took control of the country's largest dam and moved within striking distance of Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, making the city a more prominent target for militants.

Peshmerga have yet to take back the actual town of Sinjar, as the militants still control the southern side of the mountain, and many of the surrounding villages. Nonetheless, the freeing of the Yazidis from the mountain is a victory for the Kurds after ISIS’ routing of peshmerga fighters this summer.

Sinjar's awkward geography, out on a limb to the west, has made it difficult to penetrate. The road through the town is also an important supply route for ISIS militants between Mosul and neighboring Syria.

On Thursday, Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG's department of foreign relations told Reuters from London that Kurdish armed forces have been coordinating with volunteering pro-Iraqi government fighters in the fight against ISIS.

In addition to coordinating with Iraqi troops and fighters, Kurdish forces have been receiving foreign support.

In August, KRG President Massoud Barzani announced that Iran was the first country to to supply Iraqi Kurds with weapons and equipment.

"We asked for weapons and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition," Barzani said in a joint conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif.

Besides helping Kurdish forces, Iran has offered time and again to help the Iraqi army and other allied groups in their fight against ISIS.

"In the face of terrorism, we must use all means... Iran is ready to place all of its abilities at Iraq's disposal," Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on November 10.

However, the Islamic Republic asserted that it would not send ground troops.

“The Iraqi people need our support and assistance, including defense assistance, but not soldiers,” Zarif said in August. “We don’t have soldiers in Iraq and we don’t intend to send soldiers to Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the United States, backed by some European and Arab allies, has been launching airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria since August and September respectively, which have mostly failed to push back the jihadist group.

Even though Baghdad repeatedly expressed its opposition to the deployment of any foreign ground forces on Iraqi territories, the US, unlike Iran, decided to send troops to Iraq.

Over 3,100 troops are expected to be in Iraq by 2015, reportedly to serve as advisers to the Iraqi army.

Pentagon claims ISIS leaders killed

On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that several ISIS leaders in Iraq had been allegedly killed in US airstrikes in recent weeks.

"I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders" in ISIS, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby claimed in a statement.

"We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades ISIL's ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq," said Kirby, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

The bombing raids were carried out mostly in northern Iraq, defense officials said, but they did not say where each leader was killed.

The most significant figure was identified as Haji Mutazz, better known as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who was deputy to the group's chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

However, there was no reports that Turkmani had been indeed killed on the jihadist social media accounts and forums that usually relay such information.

Damascus, Iran and other critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Critics also doubt the tactics and effectiveness of the US-led, anti ISIS air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS' military capability, pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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