NEAR SINJAR TOWN: Kurdish forces said they had secured strategic facilities in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Friday as part of an offensive against Islamic State militants that could provide critical momentum in efforts to defeat the jihadist group.
“ISIL defeated and on the run,” the Kurdistan regional security council said in a tweet, using an acronym for Islamic State. It said the peshmerga had secured Sinjar’s wheat silo, cement factory, hospital and several other public buildings.
Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and volunteers from Iraq’s Yazidi minority, which has suffered atrocities at the hands of Islamic State, entered Sinjar on Friday after cutting it off from east and west.
The Kurdistan council said peshmerga forces had entered Sinjar “from all directions” to begin clearing remaining insurgents. A Reuters correspondent saw hundreds of peshmerga fighters walking into the town and along a main road without facing immediate resistance.
It was not clear whether Islamic State militants had withdrawn ahead of the operation, but Kurdish commanders expressed concerns that some were hiding and would blow themselves up as the peshmerga advanced.
The number of Islamic State fighters in the town had risen to nearly 600 in the run-up to the offensive, but only a handful were left in Sinjar on Friday, said Brigadier General Seme Mala Mohammed of the Kurdish peshmerga.
Reuters could not independently verify his account.
Since the campaign began on Thursday morning, the Kurds have captured more than 150 square km (58 square miles) of territory around Sinjar from Islamic State, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria and has affiliates in Libya and Egypt.
The jihadist group, made up of Iraqis and other Arabs as well as foreign fighters, poses the biggest security threat to OPEC oil producer Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Kurdish forces have taken up positions along Highway 47, which is a supply route between Raqqa in Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul – the main Islamic State bastions – used to transport weapons, fighters and other supplies.
Kurdish commanders says they will need to advance slowly to avoid explosives likely planted by Islamic State on roads and in buildings in Sinjar. The Kurds have some of the most experienced forces in Iraq, where they fought Saddam Hussein’s security forces for decades.
The United States expects the process to secure Sinjar to take two to four days, with another week needed to complete clearing operations, said a U.S. official.
As they advanced, the United States said it had carried out an air strike in Syria targeting the Islamic State militant known as “Jihadi John,” who had participated in videos showing the killings of American and British hostages.
Elsewhere in the region, at least 43 people were killed and more than 240 wounded on Thursday in two suicide bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State in a crowded residential district in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.
The explosions were the first attacks in more than a year to target a Hezbollah stronghold inside Lebanon, and came at time when the group is stepping up its involvement in the Syrian civil war .
Iraqi government forces have struggled to build momentum in pushing back Islamic State since the group swept through the north last year and consolidated gains in the vast Sunni heartland Anbar province in the west.
The Kurds and Shi’ite militias are seen as critical forces in the fight against the insurgents, who control a third of Iraq and large parts of neighboring Syria.
Sinjar is a symbolic as well as strategic prize. Washington launched an air offensive in Iraq and neighboring Syria last summer after Islamic State’s killing and enslaving of thousands of Sinjar’s Yazidi residents focused international attention on the group’s violent campaign to impose its ideology.
U.S. military advisers are with Kurdish commanders near Sinjar mountain but are positioned well back from the fighting, a U.S. military spokesman has said.
An international U.S.-led coalition, which conducted more than 250 air strikes in the past month across northern Iraq, said Islamic State uses Highway 47 to transport weapons, fighters and illicit commodities to fund its operations.
Around 7,500 Kurdish special forces, peshmerga and Yazidi fighters have joined the fight for Sinjar.
For Yazidis taking part, the battle is very much about retribution for Islamic State’s violence against their religious community, which the militants consider devil worshippers.
Most Yazidis have been displaced to camps in the Kurdistan region; several thousand remain in Islamic State captivity.
Yazidis of all ages have come to take part in the battle, some even returning from abroad. A few men are more than 70 years old, and a commander said he had turned away a boy of 17.
Avdel Khalaf Assaf, a 65-year-old man with a long gray beard, had volunteered to fight.
“Even those who don’t have weapons should come and bring a stick to beat the enemy,” he said.