U.S. supports Kurds in fight for Sinjar
Key supply route linking Syria and Northern Iraq for Islamic State fighters targeted
The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group began its first coordinated cross-border offensive last week, driving to retake the key city of Sinjar in northern Iraq while choking off the extremist movement’s capital of Raqqa in Syria.
A Kurdish official told The Washington Times that the peshmerga, the armed forces of semiautonomous Kurdistan, have killed more than 100 Islamic State fighters and control a neighborhood inside Sinjar.
On one front, a force of 7,500 peshmerga launched a ground attack on Islamic State positions guarding Sinjar, as U.S. airstrikes hit scores of targets in and around the city. Coalition officials say some 95 square miles of territory have been reclaimed from the Islamic State.
Across the border, Syrian Kurds and Arab forces launched an offensive to cut key roads into Raqqa used for sending and receiving supplies. Raqqa is the capital, spiritual heart and economic lifeline for operations inside the Islamic State’s selfstyled caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
“We expect that the ISIL forces will be dug in, will have placed defensive measures, put those in place to try and hold this ground,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. “So we do not expect that this is going to be an easy fight. But we do have confidence in the Iraqi Kurdish forces there who have shown their capability in the past.”
The Pentagon spokesman said the offensive operations, backed by airstrikes from the U.S. and its allies, is “an opportunity to deal ISIL a blow.”
“Again, I don’t want to lead you to think that this is going to be an easy fight,” Mr. Cook said. “Every aspect of this campaign has proven to be challenging.”
Indeed, the coalition badly needs a victory in a war that top U.S. military officials acknowledged has become stalemated. U.S. officers have openly urged Iraqi commanders to launch an offensive to retake the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi in the west. But the city, abandoned when the Iraqi soldiers defending it fled their posts in May, is still in the Islamic State’s grip.
In Sinjar, U.S. special operations forces were operating from a hill above the fighting, Col. Steven Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, told The Associated Press. U.S. advisers were also positioned with Kurdish commanders, set back from the front line and behind Sinjar mountain, to remain away from the crossfire, the AP reported.
In Syria, U.S.-backed rebels have had little success, pressured by extremists such as Islamic State and the Russian-backed forces of President Bashar Assad. The Obama administration began two programs: arms shipments directly to moderate rebels and a plan to insert scores of American commandos to advise them in battle.
Weekend talks in Vienna
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in an address in Washington ahead of a new round of talks on a Syria peace deal this weekend in Vienna, said President Obama is not backing down from his demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down as part of any deal to end the country’s bloody civil war. But he said the outcome remains uncertain as Russia and — for the first time — Iran join the talks.
Moscow and Tehran have been key backers of Mr. Assad in the conflict, which has drawn in players from across the region.
“The walls of mistrust within Syria, within the region and within the international community are thick and high,” Mr. Kerry said. Although Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin have clashed over the fate of Mr. Assad, the U.S., Russia and other countries at the table “have decided not to let that disagreement prevent us from trying to build on the common ground we have established,” the secretary of state said.
A major objective of the offensive in Iraq is to take control of Highway 47, the east-west route that links Islamic Stateheld Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with Raqqa and other captured land in Syria.
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on defeating the Islamic State, called the operation a coordinated effort with Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters ringing Raqqa at the same time that Kurdish peshmerga fighters control the highway.
Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
Smoke believed to be from an airstrike billows over Sinjar in northern Iraqi. Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the U.S.-led air campaign, launched an assault aiming to retake the strategic town, which the Islamic State overran last year.