Kurdish, US forces deal major blow to Islamic State; kill top leaders

19 December 2014

Kurdish forces today pressed their biggest offensive against the Islamic State group so far, buoyed by US reports that jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's top aide in Iraq has been killed.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces were securing the surroundings of Mount Sinjar after breaking a months-old jihadist siege of the north-western region, while fighting was also reported near the city of Tall Afar further east.

The Pentagon said on Thursday that US strikes had killed several top leaders of the group that proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq six months ago and rose to be the world's most feared jihadist organisation.

"I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition air strikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

US officials said among those killed was Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who was Baghdadi's deputy in charge of Iraq and would be the most senior IS leader to fall this year.

Kirby said strikes against the group's leadership were disrupting the jihadists' "ability to command and control current operations against" Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces.

The leaders of autonomous Kurdistan described the operation they have spearheaded since Wednesday as the most successful so far against the jihadists.

After the US-led coalition paved the way with some 50 air strikes, around 8,000 Peshmerga reclaimed some 700 square kilometres (270 square miles) in the Zumar and Sinjar regions in two days. Late Thursday, they reached Mount Sinjar, where thousands of fighters and civilians from the Yazidi minority had been besieged for months.

"The Peshmerga have liberated around 70 per cent of the areas around Mount Sinjar, but the southern part of the Sinjar region is still under IS control," Faisal Saleh, a Yazidi who has been stranded on the mountain with his family, told AFP by phone.

"The Peshmerga are currently offering assistance to those who need it the most and they are planning to take them to Kurdistan but that hasn`t happened yet," he said.

Mount Sinjar saw one of the most dramatic episodes of the six-month-old conflict in Iraq in August, when tens of thousands of Yazidis were trapped there without food or water.
Fears of genocide in the small Kurdish-speaking minority were one of the reasons US President Barack Obama put forward for starting an air war against the jihadists.

The Peshmerga also closed in on Tall Afar, a large city from which huge numbers of Shiite Turkmen were displaced when IS fighters attacked in June.

But residents said the Iraqi army's elite counter-terrorism unit, known as the Golden Brigade, was leading operations around the city.

According to a US military statement, two of the five air strikes carried out by coalition warplanes on Thursday targeted IS vehicles near Tall Afar.

The Iraqi portion of the jihadists' caliphate has shrunk in recent weeks, with central government troops and Shiite militia making significant gains in the east of the country and south of Baghdad.
Kurdish officers have said the latest Peshmerga-led operation forced many IS militants to seek refuge across the Syria border or in their main hub of Mosul, Iraq's second city, around which they have been building berms and trenches.

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