Kurdish and US forces have launched an offensive to retake Sinjar in northern Iraq from Islamic State – and cut off a vital supply route for the militants.
US-led coalition airstrikes have been pounding IS-held areas in the town as around 7,500 Kurdish special forces, Peshmerga and Yazidi fighters descend from Sinjar mountain towards the frontline.
They travelled in a convoy made up of humvees on flatbed trucks, heavy artillery and fighters waving Kurdish flags and brandishing their rifles – winding past abandoned cars and bloodstained clothing on the road many of them had used to flee IS in 2014.
On the frontline, just 300m from Islamic State fighters, Loqman Ibrahim, head of a Yazidi battalion under Peshmerga command, told Reuters he heard militants urging each other to fight to the death and that an order was given not to “withdraw from the caliphate”.
Operation Free Sinjar aims to cordon off the town, which sits on the main highway between Mosul and Raqqa – the main IS bastions in Iraq and Syria.
Sinjar was overrun more than a year ago by IS, who massacred and enslaved thousands of Yazidis – regarded as devil worshippers by the extremists.
The onslaught prompted Barack Obama to authorise the first airstrikes against Islamic State in August 2014, saying he was acting to prevent a genocide of the Yazidis.
Hussein Derbo, the head of a Peshmerga battalion made up of 440 Yazidis, said the men under his command could have migrated to Europe but chose to stay and fight.
“It is our land and our honour. They (Islamic State) stole our dignity. We want to get it back,” he told Reuters in a village on the northern outskirts of Sinjar town.
Derbo’s brother, Farman, echoed the sentiment, saying he hoped the militants did not retreat from battle so that the Yazidis could kill them all.
The offensive is being personally overseen by Kurdistan regional president Massoud Barzani.Kurdish forces and the US military said the number of IS fighters in the town had increased to nearly 600 after reinforcements arrived as the offensive was delayed by weather and friction between various Kurdish and Yazidi forces.