Kur­dish force feels op­ti­mistic in bat­tle with Is­lamic State

As she sur­veyed the view from the slopes of this strate­gic peak near the Syr­ian bor­der last week, a young Kur­dish fighter was op­ti­mistic.

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE -

Beyond the grazing sheep and tents of those dis­placed from the city of Sin­jar be­low, she could see the road lead­ing out of town to­ward the Syr­ian bor­der — quiet for now, though still plagued by Is­lamic State snipers fight­ing Kur­dish forces street by street.

"It's the main life-giv­ing vein for ISIS in Mo­sul," Navita Aryen, 23, said of the road, which runs about 50 miles east to Mo­sul, Iraq's sec­ond-largest city, now con­trolled by the ex­trem­ists. "Once we cut them off, we can then move on to other ar­eas."

But with Is­lamic State shift­ing re­sources to Sin­jar and to Tall Afar, a mixed Sunni-Shi­ite city on the road to Mo­sul that has a mil­i­tary air­port and a pop­u­la­tion of 200,000, oth­ers ques­tioned how soon the area could truly be se­cured.

The strate­gic bat­tle for con­trol of the Sin­jar sup­ply routes be­gan last sum­mer, after Is­lamic State seized Mo­sul, a city of more than a mil­lion, and laid waste to sur­round­ing vil­lages — cap­tur­ing, en­slav­ing and killing mem­bers of the Yazidi re­li­gious mi­nor­ity.

More than 10,000 Yazidis fled in Au­gust into the Sin­jar moun­tains, where they be­came trapped; Pres­i­dent Obama cited their plight when he ini­ti­ated an airstrike cam­paign against Is­lamic State in Septem­ber.

With that back­ing, Kur­dish forces, in­clud­ing the fight­ers known as pesh­merga, launched an of­fen­sive from Mt. Sin­jar last month that leader Mas­soud Barzani said routed Is­lamic State from the area.

"We have opened and con­trolled all the roads and bro­ken the siege im­posed on Sin­jar Moun­tain," Pres­i­dent Barzani said dur­ing a visit to the area on Dec. 21. "We will crush Is­lamic State."

In the days that fol­lowed, pesh­merga com­man­ders in­sisted that they would re­take Sin­jar city, cut­ting off Is­lamic State sup­ply routes to Mo­sul, which had been fac­ing short­ages of food, fuel, wa­ter and other sta­ples. They se­cured nu­mer­ous towns, as well as the Rabia bor­der cross­ing into Syria, but have yet to re­take Sin­jar or Tall Afar.

Sin­jar was once a city of 88,000, but is now a ghost town of burned and bombed build­ings, Kur­dish com­man­ders said.

At a pesh­merga com­mand post on Mt. Sin­jar last week, Kur­dish of­fi­cial Saeed Shin­gali said Is­lamic State fight­ers had been weak­ened by re­cent airstrikes, which de­stroyed their heavy ar­mor and low­ered morale.

"They've shifted to a de­fen­sive stance," he said as pesh­merga fight­ers loaded up trucks nearby and pre­pared to de­scend the moun­tain to con­tinue fight­ing.

Pesh­merga com­man­der Said Qasim ar­rived, au­to­matic ri­fle in hand, and said that as his forces tight­ened their hold on the area in re­cent days, the in­sur­gents' sup­plies have dwin­dled. With fewer re­in­force­ments, he said, the fight­ers have be­come des­per­ate.

"There is weak­ness. The roads are still open from Tall Afar so they are still get­ting sup­plies, but we've heard them on their walkie-talkies call­ing for sup­plies, say­ing they only have four mor­tars left," he said. But, he added, "un­less we cut them off from the bor­der, there's no way to se­cure the area."

The towns and vil­lages along the bor­der here are a waste­land of bombed build­ings, rub­ble-strewn streets and fields where red flags mark road­side bombs.

In the vil­lage of Si­noni, an aban­doned Is­lamic State tank sat on a cor­ner near where Jen­gana Ak­bar, a fighter with a Kur­dish flag tied around his head, said he re­cently found a Yazidi man's de­cap­i­tated body dumped by Is­lamic State fight­ers.

Lo­cal busi­nesses still bore Is­lamic State fight­ers' graf­fiti, in­clud­ing, "The lions of God," "Is­lam or death" and "The Is­lamic State re­mains — and it's ex­pand­ing."

Mayor Nayef Qasim was back in his spare of­fice last week be­hind bro­ken win­dows, try­ing to get his town and 45 sur­round­ing ham­lets, once home to 148,000 peo­ple, run­ning again.

Qasim, who is Yazidi, said Kur­dish fight­ers could re­take Mo­sul, but must first block Syr­ian ship­ments, forc­ing Is­lamic State to de­tour south through An­bar prov­ince, much tougher ter­rain.

"The road to An­bar is desert, harsh desert," Qasim said. "But the bor­der here is easy to cross."

In or­der for Kur­dish fight­ers to split Is­lamic State and win con­trol of the bor­der re­gion, they need more airstrikes and a bet­ter-equipped army, he said.

"With­out in­tense airstrikes to pave the way, th­ese forces can't go in" to Sin­jar and even­tu­ally Mo­sul, he said.

Maj. Neysa N. Wil­liams, a U.S. mil­i­tary spokes­woman, said de­ci­sions about airstrikes had to be co­or­di­nated with the Iraqi mil­i­tary. She de­flected a ques­tion about the strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance of se­cur- ing the Sin­jar area, say­ing, "Our goal is for the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces to stand on their own, but not stand alone, and en­sure that Iraq is able to de­fend its bor­ders and pre­vent another group like [Is­lamic State] from hap­pen­ing."

Dozens of Sin­jar fam­i­lies re­mained camped on the moun­tain last week in blue-and-white United Na­tions refugee tents, un­able or un­will­ing to re­turn to their homes, which might be booby-trapped, on roads that Is­lamic State fight­ers had laced with land mines.

"We're wait­ing for the bat­tles to fin­ish so we can go back. No one has gone back to the city it­self. You still have mor­tars, snipers, IEDs," said Ghazi Kha­laf, 36, a fa­ther of eight who fled Sin­jar in Au­gust.

As pesh­merga fight­ers strate­gized nearby, Kha­laf and his rel­a­tives sat on mats next to a rock over­look­ing their home­town.

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