Kurdish forces, backed by a US-led air campaign, regained the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar from Islamic State militants on Friday, delivering a major setback to the extremist group.
“Sinjar is liberated,” said the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, in remarks made on Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the town located in the north-west of the country.
Kurdistan’s battle-hardened Peshmerga forces led a major attack on Thursday to recapture Sinjar, strategically located on a main road linking the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq and the city of al-Raqqa, the de facto capital for the al-Qaeda splinter group in neighbouring Syria.
The Pentagon confirmed that Sinjar had been liberated. US Army Colonel Steven Warren said Peshmerga forces “firmly control” several kilometres on either side of the town.
The onslaught was aimed at cutting off a vital supply line for the Islamic State militia, which also rules vast territory in Syria.
The Peshmerga replaced the Islamic State flags with the Kurdish ones atop buildings in Sinjar, Kurdish media reported.
Special Kurdish teams were reportedly defusing explosives planted by the militants. Warren said this “clearing out” phase would take a week to 10 days.
That will be followed by a consolidate-and-reorganize phase and preparations for “follow on operations” that Warren declined to describe because “ISIL would like to know – we will keep them guessing.”
Taking control of Sinjar is set to enable the Peshmerga to approach Mosul from at least three directions, thus boosting the odds for any offensive to dislodge Islamic State from its stronghold in northern Iraq. Sinjar lies around 120 kilometres north-west of Mosul.
Islamic State’s seizure of Sinjar in August 2014 forced thousands of the minority Yezidi community, followers of an ancient religion, to flee the mountain town.
The move prompted the United States to start an air campaign in Iraq against the radical group.
Warren said the mission to retake Sinjar also aimed to shut down oil facilities controlled by the Islamic State. An estimated two-thirds of Islamic State’s oil revenue comes from the region, he said.
Sinjar is one of several areas where administrative control is disputed between Kurdistan and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.
The Kurds’ recapture of Sinjar seems to have come as a boost to the Iraqi government’s military campaign against Islamic State, which also controls large parts in western Iraq.
Government troops launched on Friday an operation to retake the western city of Ramadi from Islamic State, a military statement broadcast on state television said.
“Sons of the armed forces have started an advance to cleanse the dear city of Ramadi from the impurities of terrorism in three directions,” the statement said.
In May, Islamic State overran Ramadi, the capital city of the western province of Anbar, marking the biggest victory for the radical Sunni group in months.
Hardline jihadists have since stepped up their attacks against security forces and civilians in different parts of Iraq.
On Friday, at least 21 people were killed and 35 injured in a suicide attack in a mostly Shiite area in the capital Baghdad, a security official said.
A suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up during a memorial service in a mosque in the district of al-Amel in south-western Baghdad, the official added on condition of anonymity.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Previous such attacks were claimed by Islamic State, which regards Shiites as apostates.