Kurdish troops have begun an offensive to retake the town of Sinjar, seized by "Islamic State" last year. Sinjar's capture prompted efforts to rescue resident Yazidis and the first US airstrikes against the militants.
A statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council on Thursday said some 7,500 peshmerga fighters were closing in on Sinjar, in an effort to cut off a vital supply line for the "Islamic State" (IS).
The statement said the action was also aimed at creating "a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery."
The key objective of the move was to cut off one of the main supply routes used by IS. The route, Highway 47, links the de facto IS capital, Raqqa, in Syria with Mosul in northern Iraq, the largest city under IS control.
"The attack began at 7 a.m. (0400 UTC), and the peshmerga forces advanced on several axes to liberate the center of the Sinjar district," Major General Ezzeddine Saadun told the AFP news agency.
Symbolic and strategic
Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria are fighting to retake parts of the corridor, backed with air support from a US-led coalition. Sinjar, sitting high above the road, represents a particularly strategic - as well as a symbolic - prize.
Warplanes from the coalition have been hitting targets around Sinjar ahead of the offensive, with strikes reported to have become more intense at about dawn. IS is said to have brought in reinforcements to Sinjar in anticipation of an assault.
The town was taken by IS in August last year as the group swept across northern Iraq, inflicting atrocities on members of the Yazidi religious community.
Yazidi fighters were also reported to be among the troops closing in on Sinjar. The group, which is Kurdish but whose faith is linked to ancient Mesopotamian religions, suffered intense persecution at the hands of IS, who regard Yezidis as heretics.
During the assault on Sinjar, IS carried out mass killings of Yazidi men, forced others to convert to Islam and enslaved hundreds of women and girls.
Sinjar was the focus of the first US airstrikes against IS, with the initial aim being to protect members of the group who had fled up the mountain.
UN groups say at least 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect took refuge in nine locations on Mount Sinjar, a mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah's Ark. Many were escorted to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan by peshmerga fighters.
rc/jil (AFP, AP, Reuters)