A convoy of pesh merga fighters on Mount Sinjar. The objective of the ground offensive is to cut a major ISIS supply line between Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul.Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq — Kurdish forces aided by thousands of lightly armed Yazidi fighters captured a strategic highway on Thursday in northern Iraq in the early stages of an offensive to reclaim the town of Sinjar from the Islamic State, which seized it last year and murdered, raped and enslaved thousands of Yazidis.
As many as 7,500 Kurdish pesh merga fighters were moving on “three fronts to cordon off Sinjar City, take control of ISIL’s strategic supply routes, and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery,” the security council of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Describing the unfolding battle, Kurdish officials said that pesh merga forces had taken the village of Gabara, west of Sinjar, and had cut the supply line, Highway 47, the major east-west road that connects Syria to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and that serves as a lifeline for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
But continuing the factional tensions that plagued the planning of the operation and had created delays, troops with the government pesh merga units and fighters from the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., fought in separate theaters and made competing claims — all with an eye to establishing control of the area if it is liberated.
“We cut the road between Syria and Iraq three hours ago, at around eight in the morning,” said Moslum Shingal, the nom de guerre of a P.K.K. commander on the mountain who was reached by telephone. Gaining control of the road could hamper the Islamic State’s movement of fighters, fuel and supplies within its self-declared caliphate and force the militants to resort to less efficient smuggling routes.
By midday, the combined forces said they had captured a 35-kilometer, or about 22-mile, stretch of the highway on either side of Sinjar, accomplishing one of the principal aims of the operation. However, there were competing claims from the two sides about which group had taken the road first and who held the checkpoints along the controlled portion of the road.
“Up until now we have taken back 35 kilometers of the highway,” said Qassim Simo, the head of a pesh merga intelligence unit on Mount Sinjar. “This was all done by pesh merga and Yazidi forces.”
P.K.K. leaders, however, countered that they had taken and now controlled the road west of Sinjar, which is still held by the Islamic State, while the pesh merga controlled the eastern part.
As the campaign got underway, long columns of pesh merga vehicles, including pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and a small number of armored vehicles, snaked their way across Mount Sinjar as airstrikes boomed in the distance.
Some of the fighters walked alongside the vehicles, headed for the front in Sinjar. Along the way, a suicide car bomb was blown up by a pesh merga antitank missile before the driver could reach his target.
The battle plan called for the pesh merga, joined by Yazidi forces, to sweep down from Mount Sinjar to attack fighters of the Islamic State on multiple fronts. Kurdish officials said there could be as many as 700 Islamic State fighters in and around Sinjar, including foreign jihadists.
“We have made our plans, but not everything goes according to plan,” Maj. Gen. Aziz Waisi, the commander of the Zeravani Force, which is leading one of the prongs of the Kurdish offensive, said earlier. “It is war, we have a determined enemy and there are always surprises from ISIS.”
The operation, which comes as the American-led coalition is trying to regain the initiative in the struggle with the Islamic State, holds out the possibility of progress along a new front in northern Iraq. The Obama administration has been under pressure to show that it has a workable strategy for defeating the Islamic State, and it is looking to the successful prosecution of this offensive as a first step.
The aim is to add pressure on Islamic State fighters who are being pressed militarily in northeast Syria and Iraq. They are currently partly encircled in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq, and were recently evicted from Baiji in northern Iraq, the site of a strategic oil refinery.
Still, the operation faces several important military and political challenges.
Even if the Sinjar campaign succeeds, the Islamic State has a stranglehold on vital areas in the region, including Mosul and large portions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. That includes most of the Sunni Arab heartland of Anbar Province, where a government-led military push has advanced toward Ramadi but has not yet managed to retake it from the militants.
The United States-led coalition has also had continuing troubles handling stark divisions between the factions nominally aligned under the anti-Islamic State banner, infighting over who should control the area once it is liberated that threatened to upend the attack even in its late stages.
Before the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq, the area was a political stronghold for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of President Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, who is overseeing the Sinjar operation from a command post in northwest Iraq.
But many Yazidis — a tiny religious minority that was almost entirely based around Mount Sinjar before the Islamic State’s advance — blame the pesh merga and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, commonly known as the K.D.P., for failing to prevent Sinjar’s fall in the first place and subjecting them to a catalog of horrors by the Islamic State, including the sexual enslavement of thousands of women.
That calamity led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, tens of thousands of whom spent a week or more exposed to a blazing August sun on the barren slopes of Mount Sinjar with little food or water. They were eventually rescued by the Syrian Kurdish militia of the P.K.K., which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.
As a result, the Yazidis’ sympathies now lie strongly with the P.K.K., creating tensions over who will control the territory in the event that it is liberated from the Islamic State.
“Yazidi support has shifted away from the K.D.P.,” said Christine van den Toorn, who directs the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya. “If Sinjar is to be retaken from ISIS, repopulated and rebuilt, the K.D.P. cannot be the only liberator and ruler.”
The standoff between the P.K.K. and the pesh merga was serious enough in recent days that it threatened to upend the operation, though the plan seems in the end to have been carried out mostly by the government’s pesh merga forces.
“The real story here is that this offensive has been delayed because of the unresolved competition between the pesh merga and the P.K.K. for control of the Sinjar area,” said Matthew Barber, an expert on the region and a board member of Yazda, an organization helping displaced Yazidis. “Even now the real question is, Who will have control of the area after the new offensive ends?”
While a Yazidi regiment is to participate in part of the pesh merga offensive, other Yazidi fighters have been operating independently, and all are eager to exact revenge on the Islamic State fighters for their actions 15 months ago, when they overran Mount Sinjar.
Tactically, preparations for the Sinjar offensive have been underway for weeks, and the Islamic State appears to have anticipated the assault and has been sending reinforcements, General Waisi said.
With more than a year to dig in, the militants are also believed to have fortified their positions and made plans for a counterstrike.
Throughout the conflict, the Islamic State has used improvised explosive devices to create dense minefields. The aim is to slow down attacking forces and channel them into “kill zones” so they can be targeted with sniper fire, mortars or machine-gun fire. Many of the houses in Sinjar are believed to be rigged with explosives.
Using suicide car bombs, the militants are also said to be poised to mount counterattacks from Tal Afar to the east, from the towns of Blij and Baaj to the south, and from Syria to the west.
“They try to identify a weak point in the defense and then send everything possible to that single point,” General Waisi said. “It starts with suicide bombers and then heavy machine guns. We know their tactics, but there will be surprises.”
The operation on Thursday was timed to coincide with forecasts of several days of clear weather. That would enable the United States to provide more air power, including A-10 Warthog attack jets based in Turkey.
Still, coping with the Islamic State’s improvised explosive devices will not be easy for the pesh merga, who suffered losses of more than two dozen, virtually all from such explosives, in a recent operation near Kirkuk, according to allied officials.
The pesh merga have received 40 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, from the United States, 15 of which have special rollers attached to clear mines. But Kurdish officials say the vehicles are not nearly enough, given the 600-mile front the Kurds share with the Islamic State. Nor have armored Humvees or armored bulldozers been provided by the Americans.
The pesh merga have received hundreds of Milan antitank missiles from Germany and 1,000 AT4 antitank weapons from the United States, officials say. Kurds say the Milan missiles have proved to be the most useful in defending against suicide vehicle attacks, but pesh merga commanders say they need more of them.
The American-led coalition has also provided the pesh merga with a large number of small arms, including machine guns, rifles, mortar tubes and mortar rounds. As the Sinjar offensive has approached, Kurdish officials say, the coalition has been rushing in new supplies of ammunition as well.
Even if Sinjar is retaken and the highway is held, more military steps will need to be taken if the American-led coalition wants to cut off supplies from Syria to Mosul, said Michael Knights, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It will slow down the flow of Islamic State traffic to and from Mosul,” Mr. Knights said. “That traffic will be forced to move on desert tracks and local roads to the south of Sinjar, which will greatly reduce the flow.”