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Kurdish Forces In Iraq Begin Offensive Against Islamic State In Sinjar

Smoke believed to be from an airstrike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday.

Kurdish forces in Iraq have begun an offensive to try to take back the town of Sinjar from the Islamic State.

NPR's Alison Meuse reports that the 7,000 or so Kurdish fighters are expecting the town to be heavily mined. She filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"A commander from the peshmerga forces of northern Iraq says his men have already taken a key highway that connects the Iraqi city of Mosul to ISIS's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, and that they are moving slowly into the town of Sinjar.

"Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition are thought to have destroyed some of ISIS's car bombs, but they are expecting the town to be mined extensively.

"ISIS took Sinjar 15 months ago, killing and enslaving thousands of the minority Yazidis who lived there."

If you remember, as the Islamic State moved into Sinjar, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped without provisions.

The BBC reports that this operation is as much symbolic as it is strategic:

"Sinjar is symbolically significant because it is part of the disputed territories claimed by both the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region and the central government.

"The Yazidi community accused the Kurds of letting them down, saying the Peshmerga withdrew from the town allowing IS militants to take over.

"The IS attack on Sinjar in August 2014 was one of the reasons the US began air strikes against IS positions in Iraq, amid a warning of genocide. Yazidis, whose religion includes elements of several faiths, are considered infidels by IS."

The New York Times, which has a reporter in Sinjar, says Kurdish forces believe that the Islamic State has about 600 fighters in the city. The newspaper adds a bit more detail on the strategy at play here:

"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 still has a stranglehold on vital areas in the region, including on Mosul and on 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."

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