On Dec. 17, Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a long-awaited offensive to liberate Mount Sinjar, where thousands of starving Yezidi refugees have held out for months under siege by Islamic State.
Around 8,000 troops took part in the operation, with support from U.S. and allied warplanes.
By Dec. 19, Kurdish forces controlled the main routes to Sinjar from both Rabia in the north and Zummar to the east. In those three days, the Pesh liberated several villages and started making their way into Yezidi territory.
They were finally able to break the long siege on Mount Sinjar. But the town of Sinjar remains under Islamic State control. This battle is just starting.
On my way to Sinjar on Dec. 21, several groups of Yezidi people were returning to Sinjar and its districts. Many carried weapons and Kurdish flags as they headed back to their homes.
The returnees included Qawwal Bahzad, a Yezidi holy man. The Qawwals are a Yezidi caste devoted to preserving the sect’s oral traditions.
“Our purpose is to give fighting assistance to the Peshmerga,” Bahzad said. He said the swift move on Sinjar by the Peshmerga was impressive. Kurdish forces made a point of promptly cutting the militants’ supply lines.
Bahzad also mentioned the presence of Kurdish president Massoud Barzani on the front lines. There are reports that Barzani personally supervised the operation.
I got to Mount Sinjar via the road from Rabia. Several Peshmerga were monitored route. The area seemed to be secure, but there was still danger from the bombs and booby-traps the militants had left behind.
Troops directed the cars to avoid explosives—many of which were visible from the car.
On the top of the mountain, Barzani was giving a speech. “First I greet our Yezidi brothers and sisters on the mountain for their bearing and bravery,” he said. “I also greet the Peshmerga, who have achieved a great victory on Mount Sinjar.”
I found Qasim Shasho, the Yezidi commander who had stayed behind on Mount Sinjar to lead the volunteer fighters defending Yezidi shrines.
“This was a big success and it is like an Eid for us that Pres. Barzani came here,” Shasho told me. “Islamic State will not exist in our areas soon.”
“The minute when our Yezidi fighters saw their Peshmerga brothers liberating the other areas and coming to liberate Sinjar cannot be described,” he said.
Although Islamic State fighters kept Shasho and the Yezidis under siege for months, the commander said he has a low opinion of his adversaries.
“Islamic State fighters are betrayers and do not have principles, they came to take girls and women and to loot,” he said. “When they saw brave Peshmerga, they couldn’t face them—and ran away.”
Shasho said he doesn’t think the militants would have been able to take the town of Sinjar without the help of local Sunni Arabs who had joined them.
As Shasho spoke, coalition jets roared overhead, providing cover for Peshmerga troops fighting below. Islamic State had sent its own large force from Syria to join the battle.
Between Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, the militants sent about 70 trucks across the border from Syria to reinforce and resupply their forces in the area, according to one Kurdish official on the mountain.
Bombs and booby traps
The same official also said that Islamic State has positioned many snipers and suicide bombers in the town of Sinjar and surrounding areas.
So the Peshmerga are proceeding cautiously. The official said this has slowed down the process of fully securing the area.
After Kurdish forces liberated a village near Mosul Dam on Oct. 20, a suicide bomber detonated himself among the Peshmerga troops, killing himself and around 20 of the Kurds.
When the liberation of Sinjar began on Dec. 17, a militant drove an explosives-laden truck toward Peshmerga troops in an area between Zummar and Sinjar.
As the bomber closed in, a Duhok anti-terror commander named Shekh Ahmed spotted the truck and drove his armored car to intercept it.
He stopped the truck from reaching its target, but the blast badly injured Ahmed and killed two of his comrades.
On the mountain were a number of fighters in YPG uniforms—the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units—sitting on some chairs under a PKK People’s Defense Force flag. I asked them whether they are YPG or PKK fighters.
One of them joked that he didn’t know.
Another one of the fighters explained that when they are in Syria they are called YPG, when they come to Kurdistan region they are called PKK and now in Sinjar they call themselves YPSH—the People’s Sinjar Protection Force. A fighter named Yashar, said that they came yesterday from Rojava—Kurdish Syria—to back up their forces liberating Sinjar.
YPG and PKK forces helped rescue many of the refugees on Mount Sinjar and maintained the land route between the mountain and Rojava—until militants cut off the corridor in the fall. Many stayed on the mountain to protect civilians, joining Shasho’s volunteer fighters and Peshmerga forces supplied by the Iraqi air force.
Mahma Khalil, a former Iraqi parliamentarian, also stayed on Mount Sinjar and was responsible for supervising a number of other Yezidi fighters. He said that that Sinjar liberation didn’t happen overnight—it was the culmination of a very long effort by the Yezidi and their protectors among the Kurds.
“Barzani promised us in the meetings to liberate [the mountain] and he honored his promise,” Khalil said. “We are grateful to Barzani and the Peshmerga for this victory and also to the coalition, which had a role in this operation.”
“The force that can stand and fight against Islamic State is the Peshmerga,” Khalil said. “Islamic State cannot defeat them.”
Even with thousands of Peshmerga on the mountain, around Sinjar and in its nearby districts, even more Kurdish forces on the way to sustain the attack.
The mountain is free, but many of the surrounding districts—such as Girzer and Kocho—remain in Islamic State’s hands. The battle rages on.
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