Baghdad: Iraqi Kurdish militia fighters fighting to take back Sinjar from Islamic State militants reached the town center on Friday, raising a Kurdish flag and firing off celebratory gunfire following a major offensive to retake the strategic Iraqi town.
Associated Press journalists witnessed the celebrations, though a Kurdish officer cautioned that it was too soon to declare the town fully liberated.
The Kurdish forces encountered little resistance, at least initially, suggesting that many of the IS fighters may have pulled out of the town in anticipation of Friday’s advance.
Kurdish militia fighters known as peshmerga launched a major offensive to retake Sinjar and succeeded in cutting a key nearby highway on Thursday. U.S.-led coalition air strikes supported the offensive, dubbed Operation Free Sinjar.
Peshmerga Maj. Ghazi Ali, who oversees one of the units involved in offensive, said thousands of Kurdish fighters entered the town from three directions on Friday morning.
They encountered minimal resistance during Friday’s push, Maj. Ali said. He described the situation in the city as still dangerous, however, and warned that it was too soon to declare victory.
There is reason for caution. An earlier attempt to retake Sinjar, at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 30 miles (50 km) from the Syrian border, stalled in December and militants have since been reinforcing their ranks.
The fight to dislodge IS militants from the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria, meanwhile, took about four months despite hundreds of U.S. air strikes backing up the Kurdish fighters.
Islamic State extremists overran Sinjar as they rampaged across Iraq in August 2014, leading to the killing, enslavement and flight of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community. Its members follow an ancient faith that the Islamic State group considers heretical.
The U.S. later launched an air campaign against the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL, ISIS and, in Arabic, as Daesh.
Diar Namo, the 26-year-old deputy commander of the Peshmerga unit stationed there, said the skies above Sinjar were largely quiet overnight following intense coalition air strikes on Thursday.
From his frontline observation post, he said he saw little movement inside the city before Kurdish forces moved in.
“We saw more than 50 Daesh [fighters] flee overnight,” Mr. Namo said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, “Before there were only 200 to 300 in the city.”
Officials with the U.S.-led coalition estimated there were between 400 and 550 IS fighters inside Sinjar before the offensive began on Thursday.
Southeast of Sinjar, in the village of Soulag, four Peshmerga fighters were killed when a homemade bomb targeting their truck exploded, according to fighters in their unit.