MT. SINJAR, Iraq — U.S. airstrikes thundered through the cold night and into the early morning around Mt. Sinjar, readying the ground for what America's main allies in the war on ISIS hope will be a signature new offensive.
The mountain was seared into the international consciousness as the scene of some of ISIS's worst atrocities, when the militants massacred the local Yazidi religious minority during their summer 2014 surge into northern Iraq. The attempted genocide helped to spark U.S. airstrikes — and laid the groundwork for the long fight against the militants to come for the U.S. and its allies.
In the pre-dawn hours on Thursday, just before the offensive officially began, ISIS still controlled much of Sinjar town. But the rumble of the strikes, which reached even to the mountain's peak, were a sign of the gathering plans to drive the militants away.
Early on Thursday, the ethnic Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, which protected Sinjar until being rolled back by the ISIS onslaught, announced the start of a major offensive to reclaim the town. Convoys of troops rolled down the winding roads of the mountain to reinforce the fight in the town. Peshmerga soldiers said that more than a year of fighting had worn ISIS down in Sinjar; they said the group had also been battered by the relentless pace of airstrikes. "I believe ISIS is afraid of this offensive," said Jemal, an ethnic Yazidi fighting with the peshmerga in Sinjar, adding that he had seen ISIS militants fleeing outlying villages.
Peshmerga forces have been working to cut off two key ISIS supply lines — to Syria in the West and Mosul in the East. Commanders in the field told BuzzFeed News that had been accomplished on Thursday. If true, it would mean that a major push into Sinjar town could be imminent. The commanders said the plan of attack was to drive troops into the town as soon as it was cut off.
"I think it will take us one day to cut the roads and two to take the town," said Capt. Ramazan Saamo, a peshmerga commander at a hilltop post overlooking Sinjar town. "But until we get inside the town, we can't say how hard ISIS will fight to keep it."
Explosions rocked Sinjar as he spoke, pushing heavy clouds of smoke into the air. Some were from coalition airstrikes; many heralded the detonations of ISIS suicide truck bombs. Blasts of gunfire erupted after one — the sound of an ISIS assault.
At his base a short drive from the front, Lt. Col. Delgash Zebari, the commander of the 12th brigade, which is helping to lead the charge in the offensive, said ISIS's use of IEDs was a constant menace. He cited an internal intelligence estimate that said nearly 70 percent of the neighborhoods in Sinjar had been laced with the bombs. He also believed that ISIS had buried vehicles packed with TNT around the city and hidden suicide bombers to lay in wait. He expected that homes had been rigged with IEDs meant to detonate on the technicians working to disarm them. "They know our tactics very well," he said. "I don't think ISIS is a terrorist group anymore. They are a state. And they have very good experts to help them."
A victory in Sinjar town would send out a ringing signal for the Kurds in their grueling fight against ISIS — one symbolic for them and for the Yazidis, many of whom are still camped out in tents at the top of the mountain, waiting for their chance to come home. Thousands of Yazidis were said to have been killed in the rampage; more are held by ISIS as slaves, including women held in sexual slavery.
But despite what peshmerga soldiers described as days of intensive airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and thousands of peshmerga troops called in for the offensive, the possibility of a difficult fight loomed. The peshmerga and their Kurdish allies — the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syria-based People's Protection Units (YPG) — control just a slice of the town. And though some said ISIS's numbers there had thinned, pockets of intense resistance remained.
In the early hours Thursday before light broke and the offensive began, one soldier at a peshmerga base at the foot of Mt. Sinjar said the frontline was just a five-minute drive away. Another said ISIS mortars still fell on the base regularly. ISIS may have weakened in Sinjar, but they still posed a major threat. The peshmerga will be "expanding into open and lightly defended terrain," said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But the counterattacks will be harsh."
The peshmerga, the KRG's official military force, have emerged as America's top ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS, coordinating regularly with U.S. airstrikes — and taking heavy casualties along the way.
That they anticipate a quick victory in Sinjar could be a sign that ISIS is indeed close to ceding there — or else that they are overly optimistic of a signature victory in a grueling war that is often considered stalemated.
As it has on fronts across Iraq, ISIS has booby-trapped streets and houses in Sinjar with masses of improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. Advancing peshmerga soldiers could also be slowed by the group's notorious snipers and suicide attacks. And while ISIS's supply lines have been pressed in Sinjar, they still have the ability to send new troops and supplies.
But the peshmerga are eager to achieve a victory that would give them a boost both strategically and in lifting morale for their grueling fight.
The defeat the peshmerga suffered in Sinjar in August 2014 was crushing. The world watched in horror as they fled the area with ISIS giving chase, with the jihadis massacring Yazidis along the way. The rout continued to just outside the regional capital of Erbil, before the peshmerga were able to hold the lines behind the onset of U.S. airstrikes.
They have spent the 14 months since clawing back lost territory and stabilizing their battle lines. Along the way they have also sought to rebuild their stature as the strong and savvy fighting force that has been protecting Kurdish land since the time of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Soldiers seemed to hope the image of their triumph in Sinjar would replace that of their previous defeat, both internally and abroad. "It's a big deal for us," said a KRG official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the operation. "Sinjar is symbolic for us. There's a lot of history with what happened last year."
To promote the offensive, Kurdish officials have put their press program on overdrive. They quietly arranged to have a flock of international journalists on hand for the offensive's start, bringing them to Sinjar in convoys on Wednesday. Even a hashtag — #FreeSinjar — was a preplanned part of the operation. A KRG official pushed journalists to include it in their tweets; he requested to speak to at least one organization's social media editor directly.
The public relations push may also be aimed in part at internecine politics. The PKK, the Turkish insurgent group classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, did much to stem the losses in Sinjar in August 2014 and halt the ISIS advance. PKK fighters have remained in the area, doing some of the most grueling house-to-house fighting to help clear ISIS from the town. But their presence has also rankled KRG leaders who suspect the group of wanting to carve out its own influence. The Sinjar offensive was reportedly delayed in part due to bickering between the peshmerga and PKK over who would be credited for the win.
Yet all that was far from the minds of Yazidis on the mountain, who were focused on the prospect of reclaiming their home. "There is nothing I want now more than the freedom of Sinjar," said Jemal, the Yazidi fighting with the peshmerga there.
Related story: Yazidi soldiers relish the fight for Sinjar
Mike Giglio is a correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul. He has reported on the wars in Syria and Ukraine and unrest around the Middle East. His secure PGP fingerprint is DD2D D9F4 F1B5 204B 8069 3056 D916 4D69 9ED6 04D5
Contact Mike Giglio at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.