Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq are preparing to launch a counterattack against the Islamic State-led hardline Sunni insurgents that seized a large chunk of their territory over the weekend in a shock defeat.
The peshmerga will be supported by the Iraqi Air Force, central government officials said today, in one of the first signs of a united response against the insurgents since they took control of large parts of northern Iraq in June. Local media reports say Iraqi jets bombed militant positions in the region today.
The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), advanced into areas which had been under Kurdish control on Sunday — including the towns of Zumar and Sinjar, and the Ain Zalah oil field. There were conflicting reports about whether the Islamic State has seized control of the strategically important Mosul Dam.
The dam would allow the Islamic State to generate power or supply water to areas under their control, but could also be weaponized to cause droughts or floods for cities downstream. The oil field, meanwhile, is the fifth controlled by the group, potentially allowing it to increase revenues still further.
The seeming ease with which the insurgents advanced into Kurdish territory was a major blow to the peshmerga, who appeared to have held firm while Iraqi government forces fled. However, Kurdish leadership seems determined to win back what they've lost.
Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish territories, recently promised that peshmerga would soon be supplied with "advanced weapons," according to local media. Officials have since stated that troops with powerful armaments — reported to include new tanks and artillery — had been deployed to the region.
Reinforcements have also arrived in the form of the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main Kurdish force in Syria, according to reports.
A peshmerga colonel who described Sunday's retreat as "tactical" told Reuters that he expected to reclaim all lost territory as well as Iraq's second city of Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State last month, within three days. "We will attack them until they are completely destroyed we will never show any mercy," he said. "We have given them enough chance and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over."
In the meantime though, the Islamic State's advance has sown the seeds of a humanitarian crisis. Sinjar is home to a large population of Yazidis, Kurdish-speaking members of a religion which takes elements from Islam alongside ancient Iranian Zoroastrianism. However, the Islamic State considers them to be apostates and, as the extremist Sunni group advanced, as many as 200,000 civilians, mainly Yazidis, fled possible persecution, a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General said. Residents in Sinjar told the New York Times that Yazidis there had already been murdered and kidnapped.
The UN also called for Kurdish leaders to work more closely with Baghdad, saying: "The Secretary-General is particularly appalled by the humanitarian crisis the actions by IS and associated armed groups have triggered and calls upon the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to put their differences aside and work closely together in addressing the urgent security needs of the nation, and adequately protecting and safeguarding the people and territorial integrity of Iraq."
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki echoed these concerns. "We are gravely concerned for the safety of civilians in these areas, including the vulnerable minority communities who for years have been targeted by ISIL and its progenitor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)," she said in a statement yesterday. "We deeply regret the displacement of innocent civilians and mourn the loss of life from recent fighting, including from the ranks of courageous Kurdish peshmerga units who have been fighting to defend these areas."
The US is currently sharing information with ISF and peshmerga commanders, Psaki revealed, adding a call for Iraqi lawmakers to break a political deadlock which has held since April elections and move to form a new government representing all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relationship with the country's Kurds has been strained for years. It deteriorated still further in recent weeks when Kurdish forces moved into disputed areas in the north of the country — the push included taking singlehanded control of Kirkuk — after the militant advance in June. Barzani has since said that Kurds would hold onto the disputed regions and seized oil fields near Kirkuk, then made the first steps towards a referendum on independence.
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