Iraq’s Sinjar recaptured from ISIS
BAGHDAD - Right after Kurdish and Yazidi forces recaptured the strategic northern Iraqi city of Sinjar from Islamic State (ISIS) militants, a diplomatic tiff arose when Kurdish Iraqi leader Masoud Barzani insisted the Kurdish flag be hoisted in the liberated area.
The flag was raised in the shattered public squares of Sinjar but was quickly replaced with, or in some places remained next to, an Iraqi flag. Lawmakers in Baghdad insisted on the national flag to stress Iraqi sovereignty on all of Iraq, which is effectively divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Apart from the squabble, Iraqis are united in the view that the November 15th liberation of Sinjar was a major blow to ISIS, which took control of the area in August 2014 and had since used it as a junction linking it with the Syrian border, 50 km to the north.
It is widely known as one of the most active supply lines ISIS used to pass through Highway 47, which cuts across Sinjar, in northern Iraq at the foot of a chain of steep mountains, called Mount Sinjar.
“I’m happy for Sinjar’s liberation,” said Kurdish political scientist Mohammed Aziz. “But I’m still waiting to see a plan to rehabilitate the city after it was liberated, to see other cities liberated too and to bring to justice all those responsible for the blood let in the area,” Aziz insisted, referring to Arabs in Sinjar accused of collaborating with ISIS.
The offensive to retake Sinjar began at dawn November 12th, backed by US-led coalition air strikes. Kurdish and Yazidi forces closed in on three fronts after coalition warplanes bombed ISIS positions, command-and-control facilities and weapons storage facilities.
Within hours, the forces had blocked Highway 47, the main route linking ISIS-ruled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city to the east, and Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in neighbouring Syria, to the west. They also secured three nearby villages.
The Kurds estimated that there were about 600 ISIS militants in Sinjar before the offensive. The coalition said up to 70 militants had been killed in air strikes.
The overall offensive to liberate Sinjar began in December 2014 but the terrain, harsh weather and reports that ISIS had used chemical weapons in other confrontations with Kurdish peshmerga forces nearby, hampered the recapture of the city.
Many Iraqis argued that US air cover was the main reason for the victory of peshmerga and Yazidi forces against ISIS, who along with several of their informers fled south to Iraq, according to Kurdish officials.
Military analyst Essam al-Khafaji said that the “intensity” of the US air strikes on ISIS strongholds in Sinjar underlined the strategic importance Washington attaches to the US-trained Kurdish forces by lending them a valuable aid throughout the operation.
As for the victory in Sinjar, Khafaji said it was two-fold: “A symbolic one for the Yazidis, who suffered a lot, but more significantly a valuable military move that cut apart strategic lifelines for ISIS”.
When ISIS captured Sinjar in August 2014, its militants killed or kidnapped thousands of Yazidis, including women and children. About 50,000 others fled but were trapped on Mount Sinjar without food or water for days until they were rescued by Syrian Kurdish forces. ISIS considers Yazidis infidels who should convert to Islam or be killed.
Speaking on a visit to Tunisia, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the operation to retake Sinjar had “serious strategic implications, not to mention the fact that the Yazidis, who have been attacked and murdered, slaughtered and driven up on to a mountain and who have been living terrible lives over this period of time, need the right to be able to return to their home”.
Sinjar is mainly inhabited by Kurdish-speaking Yazidis with Arab and Assyrian minorities.
Shirzad Khalil, a Yazidi physician originally from Sinjar, said 60% of Sinjar had been liberated. The other part was pockets around the city that harbour militant elements. He declined to elaborate but said he was among hundreds of Yazidis awaiting permission to enter Sinjar.
“Pictures arriving to us here show massive destruction and horrendous conditions all over,” Khalil said in a telephone interview. He said he was told his house was destroyed.
The initial hoisting of the Kurdish flag in Sinjar, which drew a public outcry and led to political bickering across the country, was followed by more Kurdish steps. Barzani, the Kurdish leader, later called for Sinjar’s annexation.
Ali Al-Allaq, a deputy with the powerful parliamentary bloc State of Law Coalition, said Iraqis “are appreciative of the peshmerga’s efforts but we can’t condone Sinjar becoming part of the Kurdish region because it is part of Iraq’s Nineveh province on the eastern bank of the Tigris river”.