NEAR SINJAR, IRAQ — On the morning of the offensive to clear ISIS from Sinjar City, the thud of airstrikes shook the earth as the Kurdish peshmerga fighters headed into battle. The sky was clear and the bonfires that the men had huddled around the night before were dying down. At the sound of warplanes above, the soldiers cheered and were in high spirits.
“A lot of airplanes targeted ISIS inside Shingal [Sinjar] today,” Sharzad Abdullah, a local student from the city, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday evening. “More than any other day, as I heard they carried out 50 airstrikes.”
The Daily Beast embedded with an advancing peshmerga column as it proceeded to cut ISIS off from the strategic M47 highway connecting Syria and Sinjar from the west. The road was clear of any ISIS presence. Tank fire rattled as the peshmerga cleared swept towns on either side of the M47. In the distance, trails of dust could be seen from what appeared to be the cars of ISIS fighters as they sped away to the south.
The body of what seemed to be a teenage ISIS fighter from Tal Afar was buried by the side of the road using a truck. Peshmerga artillery aimed in the distance and managed to destroy an ISIS car bomb, filling the clear blue sky with grey dust.
Peshmerga commander General Zaim Ali looked toward the highway where he was leading his men. Tanks, bulldozers, and soldiers from the engineering unit led the attack to clear explosives in preparation for the infantry to follow.
“There is not a big ISIS resistance,” he said. “We just blew up three ISIS car bombs, one with a MILAN rocket and the other two were taken out with airstrikes.”
Ali added that the battle was originally delayed because of the weather, but now the main problems were dealing with IEDs. A radio in the background crackled with news of more explosives being detonated.
"'Are you OK?” a fighter shouted into the handset. “Yes, comrade. ISIS are running away,” came the reply.
“Lately they brought 4-500 reinforcements here, mostly snipers, but this is no problem, we can deal with them,” Ali explained. As the day wore on and the men pushed further, the general spoke to The Daily Beast again on the outskirts of Sinjar city, before rushing off to recapture an ex-Iraqi army barracks from ISIS. “Now we are surrounding ISIS,” he said, adding that the major threat in the city would be suicide bombers.
On the western front, Garbara, a town in the foothills of the mountain, was secured by the peshmerga, but locals said it had already been retaken by Yazidi fighters. The claims show the patchwork of competing forces and competing claims for credit.
The light began to fade on the battlefront as a digger moved to create an earthen berm through the fields around the city and peshmerga artillery thudded toward the town. Earth was moved up in a long line, creating a trench where the digger had past. At the end of a road leading left through stubbly fields, irregular soldiers and volunteers gathered on stretches of land where they could view the progress of the battle.
Lukman Ido, 40, a Yazidi volunteer fighter, sported a white mustache and red scarf wrapped around his head. He leaned against his pickup truck while Yazidi fighters milled around.
“The peshmerga did their best and the PKK did their best, but we need to defend our own land. I have to try and do my best because it is my land. ISIS harmed us and took our girls, so we should take it back.”
Another Yazidi fighter, Kareem Yazadeen, 32, joined the peshmerga as a teenager. He said of Sinjar, “I’m proud to fight there,” breaking out into a smile.
Just behind Lukman was a house previously occupied by ISIS. A PKK commander, Dilshir Herako, sat crouched on the roof and looked into his binoculars as a car bomb exploded inside the city. He said his men had minimal coordination with the peshmerga but were feeding their coordinates to the coalition to avoid airstrikes. The house were he sat had been damaged by an airstrike and at the back lay a body that looked like it had been thrown to the ground in the act of fleeing by the force of the impact. On the walls of the house the fighters now occupied were drawings of guns and scrawled graffiti in bright crayon. On one wall the phrase, “No one gets to heaven with selfishness in their heart,” was written next to a child-like picture of an AK-47.
The PKK commander said his men had liberated villages to the west of the mountain two days ago. Outside the house, Amara Shangal, 19, from the town of Gezerek grinned among a huddle of male and female Yazidi fighters. She escaped Sinjar during the ISIS advance and joined the fight eight months ago, but has seen no action yet. Thousands of other Yazidi girls were captured by ISIS and remain in the group’s strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria, where they have been sold, forced into marriage, and raped. “We are here to protect our people and Shangal is our land,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Sinjar.
The speed with which Sinjar was taken surprised many—including, apparently, ISIS.
“They were shocked that we went into the city that quickly and they barely fought us back,” said Brigadier Salar Taymour of the peshmerga’s Jarabani Division. Many Kurdish sources told The Daily Beast they intercepted communications from ISIS that had emirs telling their militants to remain and fight in Sinjar, adding that anyone who would flee would be killed as deserters. A senior official with the Kurdistan Regional Security Council said, “We have three main objectives after this operation: create a buffer zone so we won't get hit with artillery from ISIS, send an engineering team to clear the city from all of the IEDs ISIS planted, and then let the refugees back in.”
The peshmerga, meanwhile, have posted hundreds of pictures of ISIS corpses on the social media. So far, over 100 ISIS fighters have been shown killed in battle.
The mountain behind Sinjar City was the site of the ISIS siege of Iraq’s Yazidis, one of the reasons that pushed the U.S. to launch airstrikes in defense of the stranded ethnic minority over a year ago. Last December, a road to the north of the mountain was cleared by the peshmerga but the city remained partially in the jihadists’ hands and too dangerous for the Yazidis to return home.
The population of around half a million people in Iraq, who worship an angel in the form of a peacock and are thus deemed “devil-worshippers” by ISIS, mostly remained displaced in camps and substandard shelters in the Kurdistan region. Human-rights groups say that the violence ISIS unleashed upon the Yazidis meets the legal standard for genocide.
The few thousand Yazidis still living on the mountain braced themselves for the recapture of their town, but viewed the convoy of troops warily from the side of the road. They were still distrustful of these fighters after the peshmerga forces were outgunned by ISIS when they attacked the city. Fighters aligned with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is ideologically at odds with the Iraq-based political entity that controls the peshmerga, cleared a pathway to Syria from the mountain, rescuing thousands of Yazidis and enjoy more support on the mountain. Still, some Yazidis expressed distrust of both, showing the level of despair amongst the minority in Iraq, many of whom are leaving for Europe on dangerous smuggling routes because they know longer feel safe in Iraq.
The operation to liberate the city was also an attempt to regain the trust of the Yazidis.
Speaking at a press conference on the mountain looking over the city as the peshmerga entered, President of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani said, “Sinjar is very important because it has become a symbol of the injustice against the people of Kurdistan," adding that “aside from the Kurdistan flag, no other flag will rise in Sinjar.” The comment was clearly aimed at the PKK, whose fighters are still holed up in an abandoned home on the outskirts of the city.
Indeed, disputes between rival Kurdish militias on the mountain led to a delay in the operation. Few PKK fighters were visible along the road to the city. The PKK, a Kurdish militant group deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S., fought the Turkish state in a 30-year war. Having subsided somewhat over the past few years, that war has started up again in recent months, with PKK-perpetrated attacks in Turkey and the Turkish Air Force waging sorties against militant outposts in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.
The battle against ISIS in Sinjar may in fact prove an easy prelude to the coming fraternal struggle between Kurds.
Peshmerga “run away while we gave a lot of martyrs,” Heval Qurtay, a PKK fighter who fought in Sinjar City for eight months, told The Daily Beast. “They don’t give their lives. If they wish, they can fight next to us. Until the last PKK member died, we are going to fight here.”
The Kurdish peshmerga lost a lot of credibility after they withdrew from Sinjar in August 2014, after the ISIS blitzkrieg that left the Yazidi population defenseless. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling power in Iraqi Kurdistan, suffered in popularity as a result, especially among the Yazidi whose women were enslaved by ISIS and whose men were summarily slaughtered. Nevertheless, it has sought to control the media narrative and amplify peshmergas glory at the expense of the PKK.
“The civilians blame the KDP for losing Sinjar and hold the KDP responsible for this catastrophe,” Agid Kalari, a prominent PKK commander, said in late October.
“In order to bring balance in politics they have to liberate Sinjar by themselves. The KDP is in a critical condition.”
Christine van den Toorn, who directs the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah, agrees that intra-Kurdish tensions will become more problematic in the days to come. “I think things are going to be very complicated and there is going to be a lot of political gridlock and struggle as KDP try to reassert power with multiple other forces there now that won’t leave,” van den Toorn told The Daily Beast.
But don’t tell that to the KDP.
One peshmerga fighter from Dohuk brandished a picture of Barzani before slobbering his phone with a kiss and raising his hands to the sky in reverence to the Kurdish leader. His exuberance was clear. The next day a huge flag of the Kurdistan region would be raised over Sinjar's grain silo.
With additional reporting by Wladimir van Wilgenberg and Mais al-Bayda.