- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Kurdish government in Iraq declared Friday morning that its peshmerga fighters, backed by intense U.S. airstrikes, had liberated the city of Sinjar, a place of horrifying atrocities carried out by the Islamic State.

Sinjar is liberated by peshmerga,” tweeted Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. Kurdish officials said only one flag would fly in the city: the Kurdish one.

“I congratulate [the population] of Kurdistan, especially the Yezidis [sic],” he said, referring to the religious group targeted by the Islamic State for mass killings and extinction.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group began its first coordinated cross-border offensive on Thursday.

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.

SEE ALSO: Moderate Democrats want decisive plan from Obama to beat Islamic State

Across the border, Syrian Kurds and Arab forces, the ones Washington is counting on to reverse Islamic State territorial gains, 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 self-styled 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 State-held 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.

The Kurdish Region Security Council tweeted that peshmerga troops had taken the village of Gabara, which allowed them to control the stretch of highway that runs from Sinjar to the Syrian border. If the move holds, it means that the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has been cut off from supplying its 600 fighters in Sinjar.

The Kurdish Region Security Council tweeted a running commentary on the battle, saying peshmerga fighters also took the village of Gulat and Sino in the east and a former Iraqi military base in the west.

Embattled Yazidis

The Sinjar region has taken on symbolic weight in the fight because it was there where Islamic State jihadis launched a wave of terrorism against the local Yazidi population, members of an ancient religious minority whom the Islamic State views as heretics and devil worshippers. The women were enslaved and given to militants in Iraq and Syria, and many of the men were believed to be either killed or forced to convert.

The Washington Times reported this week that the Yazidis and their Kurdish allies have grown increasingly critical of the Obama administration in recent weeks for failing to provide adequate aid and support. Top Yazidi religious leaders have even traveled to Russia for help to prevent what they say is an ongoing genocide of their people.

But the Pentagon said the latest offensive in Sinjar has changed the dynamic of the fight.

“This is an effort, to be clear, where ISIL is on the defensive,” Mr. Cook said.

“Denying ISIL use of Highway 47 disrupts their ability to move fighters, supplies and oil destined for black market,” said a statement from the U.S. joint task force running the war.

One of the Islamic State’s most deadly weapons is the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, often rigged inside captured American-made Humvees.

The Kurdish council said that as the offensive began at dawn Thursday, it destroyed one of these devices using a Milan anti-tank rocket and a coalition airstrike took out another.

The coalition prepared the battlefield by launching over 60 airstrikes around Sinjar beginning in late October. The objective: to destroy Islamic State emplacements on both sides of the city to allow Kurdish forces to march in, take outlying villages and then mass for an assault on Sinjar.

The air targets included fighting positions, arms depots and places that surveillance aircraft showed Islamic State fighters were assembling.

“We have seen an unprecedented amount of air power in recent days to support our forces,” the Kurdish official told The Times.

The official said the Kurds still lack the kind of heavy weaponry they need, such as longer-range anti-armor weapons. Kurds blame the Shiite-run government in Baghdad for blocking shipments.

Mr. Kerry, in remarks Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Mr. Assad must leave because the moderate Syrian rebel forces backed by Washington will never accept him after four years of bloody civil war.

“Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad’s leadership is simply not a reasonable request. It’s literally a nonstarter,” he said.

Others attending the weekend gathering in Vienna include representatives from the Arab League, China, Egypt, the European Union, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Nations.

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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