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Middle East News
Iraqi Kurds Push Into Sinjar
From the Wall Street Journal of Sun, 21 Dec 2014 14:44:11 EST
People from the minority Yazidi sect are seen on Sinjar Mountain on Sunday. Iraqi Kurdish fighters set free hundreds of Yazidis after pushing into the center of Sinjar city on Sunday.
People from the minority Yazidi sect are seen on Sinjar Mountain on Sunday. Iraqi Kurdish fighters set free hundreds of Yazidis after pushing into the center of Sinjar city on Sunday. Reuters

BAGHDAD—Iraqi Kurdish fighters drove Islamic State militants from the center of the northern city of Sinjar on Sunday, rescuing hundreds of members of the Yazidi sect from a monthslong siege.

In one of the most successful counterattacks against the extremists since the group took over huge swaths of the country in June, about 1,500 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, backed by Yazidi and Christian militia units, pushed into the center of the city on Sunday.

The coordinated assault came nearly a week after American aircraft launched 47 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the area—one of the most concentrated strikes since the U.S. started attacking Islamic State in Iraq in August. Aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition have been pounding Islamic State positions throughout the past week.

Though Peshmerga fighters control the northern part of the city, local security officials say their advance was stalled in the city center in the face of fierce resistance.

The Kurdish forces’ push to retake Sinjar city and nearby Sinjar Mountain has set free hundreds of members of the Yazidi religion who have been trapped on Sinjar Mountain since early August, when U.S. forces first intervened to save them.

Peshmerga leaders hope that the latest offensive, more than three months after thousands of Yazidis were first rescued from the mountain, will finally free the embattled minority. Yazidi leaders say at least 1,000 remain trapped.

Iraqi Kurdish forces gather on the summit of Sinjar Mountain before battling Islamic State militants on Sunday.
Iraqi Kurdish forces gather on the summit of Sinjar Mountain before battling Islamic State militants on Sunday. Associated Press

“The Yazidis’ situation now is excellent. They are totally safe,” said Qassim Hussien Burges, a leader in the Yazidi community. “Islamic State are far away from the mountain now, stuck in the center of Sinjar city.”

Mr. Burges said carloads of Yazidi families could be seen arriving to the mountain’s northern base to meet their rescued loved ones. Peshmerga forces donated food and blankets to the families as they descended, he said.

Beyond rescuing Yazidis and weakening Islamic State, the past week’s operation also stands to vindicate the Peshmerga’s performance during Islamic State’s siege of the mountain in August. Some Iraqi politicians criticized the Peshmerga for abandoning thousands of refugees from the small Yazidi sect, whom Islamic State considers heretics deserving of death.

Kurdish leaders have said their fighters were forced to retreat.

The killings and kidnappings of hundreds of Yazidis sparked fears of an impending humanitarian crisis that prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to pledge air support to help Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State.

Despite reports that Sinjar remained partially in insurgent hands, Kurdish politicians were already hailing the Sinjar operation as a victory on Sunday.

“We didn’t expect that the plan would be executed and succeed so quickly but the courageous advance of the Peshmerga made the terrorists collapse,” said Masoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

Kurdish forces were still clearing land mines from the central part of the city in preparation for residents to return home.

The fighting in Sinjar bookends a weeklong effort to push Islamic State from the area around Sinjar Mountain. On Friday, Kurdish fighters and Yazidi volunteers cleared a road connecting the mountain with the city of Dohuk. The operation offered a safe exit to a few hundred Yazidi fighters and refugees who had remained on the mountain since the summer.

Despite the peril, some Yazidi civilians had stayed since August on the mountain, which adherents believe houses the faith’s central deity.

The plight of the Yazidis, a small, ancient religion who some conservative Muslims consider devil worshipers, sparked international outrage.

Islamic State captured hundreds of Yazidis earlier this year. The group slaughtered some Yazidi men, compelled others to convert and forcibly married young girls to the group’s fighters, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups.

When Islamic State closed in on the group, Yazidi refugees retreated to Sinjar Mountain, where they suffered for weeks with little food or water.

Peshmerga fighters from neighboring Syria were instrumental in helping some of the Yazidis escape in August. But Islamic State was able to hold its position in Sinjar city, which lies past the mountain’s southern flank.

The past week’s operation goes further than the fighting that freed the Yazidis in August: Kurdish leaders hope their latest assault will finally liberate all of Sinjar Mountain and its surrounding area.

“We should not believe that Islamic State is finished,” said Mr. Barzani. “This is a long war.”

Qasim Sammo, the security manager of Sinjar city, said insurgents were putting up a fierce fight against Kurdish fighters from their perches in tall buildings. He said he expects the city to be free within 24 hours.

But other local security officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said Islamic State fighters still controlled roadways from Sinjar to Tel Afar in the north and Ba’aj to the city’s south. That will allow the group to bring in heavy weapons and reinforcements to defend the town, the security official said.

Even as Iraqi security forces made gains in Sinjar, Islamic State fighters launched a muscular attack against Beiji, a city that has been the scene of constant fighting since the summer.

Islamic State fighters have assaulted Iraqi military positions in the city since Friday night, said Raed al-Jubouri, the governor of Salahaldin province. Mr. Jubouri complained that Iraq’s government has yet to provide adequate reinforcements to protect the city, which hosts the country’s largest oil refinery.

— Ghassan Adnan contributed to this article.

Write to Matt Bradley at matt.bradley@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Security officials said Islamic State fighters still controlled roads from Sinjar to Tel Afar in the north and Ba’aj to the city’s south. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the fighters controlled roads from Sinjar to Beiji.



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