Iraqi Kurds Advance Against Islamic State in Sinjar

Offensive Breaks Siege of Hundreds of Yazidis

By Ali A. Nabhan and Matt Bradley

Dec. 21, 2014

BAGHDAD--Iraqi Kurdish fighters drove Islamic State militants from the center of the northern city of Sinjar, rescuing hundreds of members of the minority 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 [1] in June, about 1,500 Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga, backed by Yazidi and Christian militia units, pushed into the city center 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 the militants in Iraq in August. [2] Aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition continued to pound Islamic State positions throughout the past week.

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

The Kurdish push to retake the city [3] and nearby Sinjar Mountain has set free hundreds of members of the Yazidi religion who have been trapped on the mountain since early August, when U.S. forces first intervened to save them.

Peshmerga leaders said they hope 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.

"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 came to the mountain's northern base to meet their rescued loved ones. Peshmerga forces donated food and blankets to the families as they came down, he said.

Some Iraqi politicians had criticized the Peshmerga in August for abandoning thousands of refugees from the small Yazidi sect, considered by Islamic State to be heretics deserving of death.

But Kurdish leaders have said their fighters were forced to retreat at the time.

The killings, kidnappings and siege of Yazidis back in August sparked fears of a humanitarian crisis that prompted President Barack Obama to pledge air support to help Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State.

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

"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 Massoud Barzani, 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 [4] with the city of Dohuk inside Iraqi Kurdistan. 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 on the mountain, which adherents believe houses the faith's central deity. The plight of the Yazidis, a small, ancient religion [5] who some conservative Muslims consider devil worshipers, sparked international outrage.

Islamic State captured hundreds of Yazidis earlier this year. The group killed 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, [6] Yazidi refugees retreated to Sinjar Mountain, where they suffered for weeks with little food or water.

Kurdish 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 said they hope their latest assault will finally liberate all of Sinjar Mountain and the 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 said Islamic State fighters still controlled roads from Sinjar to the towns of Tel Afar in the north and Ba'aj to the south. The routes allow the group to bring in heavy weapons and reinforcements, 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 hosts the country's largest oil refinery and 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 central government in Baghdad has yet to provide adequate reinforcements to protect the city.

--Ghassan Adnan contributed to this article.