Kurdish leader declares victory in key battle with ISIS

Iraqi Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani on Friday announced the "liberation" of the town of Sinjar in a major operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group.  

"I am here to announce the liberation of Sinjar," Barzani told a news conference near the northern town.

Speaking in Tunisia around the same time, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "absolutely confident" the town would be freed in the operation by Kurdish peshmerga backed by US-led air strikes and ground spotters.

"We are absolutely confident that over the next days Sinjar will be able to be liberated," Kerry said on a visit to Tunisia.

Iraqi Kurdish forces entered Sinjar itself Friday in a major operation backed by US-led strikes to retake the town made infamous by the Islamic State group's massacre of members of the Yazidi minority.

The operation, which is led by the autonomous Kurdish region's peshmerga forces and also involves Yazidi fighters, had already succeeded in cutting a key jihadist supply line running past the town to neighbouring Syria.  

The supply line is strategically important, but retaking Sinjar, where ISIS carried out a brutal campaign of massacres, enslavement and rape against the Yazidi community, would also be an important symbolic victory.

The success of the Sinjar drive is the latest sign that ISIS, which won a series of victories in a stunningly rapid offensive in Iraq last year, is now on the defensive.

On Friday morning, hundreds of Kurdish fighters, dressed in camouflage uniforms and armed with assault rifles and machineguns, moved into the town on foot, an AFP journalist reported.  

They entered carrying the autonomous Kurdish region's flag, firing in the air and shouting "Long live the peshmerga!" and "Long live Kurdistan!"  

Inside Sinjar, many houses and shops, a petrol garage and the local government headquarters had been destroyed.

Burned out cars sat in the streets, while barrels apparently containing explosives had been left behind.  

The Kurdish region's security council said "peshmerga forces entered Sinjar town from all four directions to clear remaining (ISIS) terrorists from the area."

Peshmerga commander Khalaf Murad Atto said there were still ISIS suicide bombers in the town, while Yazidi fighter Rasho Murad said snipers and bombs remained a threat.  

Sinjar has been pounded by US-led air strikes and Kurdish artillery fire targeting ISIS positions, which sent massive columns of smoke drifting up from the town on Thursday.  

Key supply line cut

The coalition carried out 36 strikes against jihadists in the Sinjar area on Wednesday and Thursday, and 15 more across the border in Al-Hol, where Syrian Kurdish forces and their Arab allies are battling ISIS.

In a rare admission on Thursday, the Pentagon said US ground forces advising the Kurds on their offensive were close enough to the front to identify ISIS targets and call in strikes.  

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters most of the US-led coalition troops were behind the front lines working with Kurdish commanders, but that "there are some advisers who are on Sinjar mountain, assisting in the selection of air strike targets."

"They're not directly in the line of action, but they might be able to visibly see it," he added.

On Thursday, Kurdish forces cut the key highway that links ISIS-held areas in Iraq and Syria.  

"Sinjar sits astride Highway 47, which is a key and critical resupply route" for ISIS, said Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international operation against ISIS.

"By seizing Sinjar, we'll be able to cut that line of communication, which we believe will constrict (ISIS's) ability to resupply themselves, and is a critical first step in the eventual liberation of Mosul," said Warren, referring to the jihadists' main hub in Iraq.

ISIS overran Sinjar in August last year, forcing thousands of Yazidis to flee to the mountains overlooking the town, where they were trapped by the jihadists.

The United Nations has described the attack on the Yazidis as a possible genocide, and on Thursday the US Holocaust Memorial Museum echoed that assessment in a report detailing allegations of rape, torture and murder by ISIS against the minority.

Aiding the Yazidis, whose unique faith ISIS considers heretical, was one of Washington's main justifications for starting its air campaign against the jihadists last year.

AFP contributed to this report.

Source: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/203353

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