Backed by US air strikes, Kurdish forces launched an offensive on Thursday to retake the Iraqi town of Sinjar from Islamic State (IS) militants who overran it more than a year ago.
VICE News is embedded with one of three divisions which are moving in on the town — an IS bastion in a key location straddling the main highway between Mosul and Raqqa — from the north, west and east. Operation Free Sinjar aims to cordon off the town, take control of IS supply routes and establish a buffer zone to protect the town from artillery.
US-led coalition air strikes pounded IS-held areas in the town overnight, as around 7,500 Kurdish special forces, peshmerga and Yazidi fighters descended from the mountain that shares its name with the town towards the frontline in a military convoy. Airstrikes continued throughout Thursday morning and drones flew overhead.
Morale is high among the eastern division, who are feeling relaxed as they attack IS targets hard with heavy artillery. The group has split into two, with some soldiers heading into Sinjar and others going to solidify the highway linking the town of Telafer with Sinjar.
VICE News is on that highway, where the Kurdish forces have encountered IEDs and come under mortar fire. An apparent suicide vehicle approached from Sinjar, but the peshmerga managed to successfully strike it before it reached them.
The commanders VICE News spoke to all stressed the importance of securing the highway, because it is a major supply route between Syria and Iraq.
Spirits were high among Kurdish commanders and local officials. "It is going according to plan. We are optimistic and we consider today like a celebration," said Sinjar district mayor Mahma Xelil.
Kurdish forces and the US military said the number of Islamic State fighters in the town had increased to nearly 600 after reinforcements arrived in the run-up to the offensive, which has been expected for weeks but delayed by weather and friction between various Kurdish and Yazidi forces in Sinjar.
Near the frontlines on Thursday, a Kurdish officer stood behind a wall of sandbags. Sinjar, about 300 metres (980 feet) away, could be seen through a gap in a rampart.
Kurdish officers said an IS sniper had taken up a position in the town. Coordinates were passed along to a joint operations room and within five minutes the position was bombed.
In the village of Galata, an IS sniper pinned down a group of peshmerga, and one was hit before the Kurds were able to clear the town. A peshmerga commander said 5 Islamic State fighters were killed in the village.
Most Yazidis have been displaced to camps in the Kurdistan region; several thousand remain in Islamic State captivity. The PKK has trained a Yazidi militia in Sinjar, while tribal groups operate independently. Several thousand Yazidis have also joined the peshmerga.
For Yazidi forces taking part, the battle is very much about retribution. The forces, many wearing the thick moustache typical of Yazidis and carrying light weapons, had gathered at a staging position overnight. They travelled in a peshmerga convoy comprised of Humvees on flatbed trucks, heavy artillery, and fighters waving Kurdish flags, flashing peace signs or brandishing their rifles.
Faisal, a middle-aged Yazidi peshmerga fighter taking part in the operation, was forced to flee to Mount Sinjar when IS invaded last year. He told VICE News life on the the mountain had been very tough. "Every day was worse than the next," he said.
While the Kurdish Regional Government had been very welcoming to him, he said, his home was in Sinjar and he was incredibly excited to go and take back the city.
It was IS's killing and enslaving of thousands of Yazidi residents in Sinjar that focused international attention on the group's violent campaign to impose its radical ideology and prompted Washington to launch its air offensive.
Hundreds of vehicles winded slowly downhill along the same road Yazidis had fled up last summer seeking safety from Islamic State. Abandoned cars and blood-stained clothing on the roadside were reminders of those chaotic scenes.
Authorizing the first strikes against Islamic State in August 2014, US President Barack Obama cited a duty to prevent a genocide of Yazidis by the radical Islamists.
The US-led coalition has carried out dozens of strikes in the past few weeks in support of the peshmerga, apparently coordinated with the Sinjar offensive.
In December 2014, Kurdish forces drove Islamic State from north of Sinjar mountain, a craggy strip some 40 miles long, but the radical Sunni insurgents maintain control of the southern side where the town is located. The peshmerga currently control about 20 percent of the town.
Backed by US air strikes, the peshmerga have also regained most of the ground they consider historically Kurdish. Sinjar is part of the disputed territories to which both the Iraqi federal government and regional Kurdish authorities lay claim.
Watch the VICE News documentary: Pinned Down by the Islamic State: The Road to Mosul (Part 1)
[ooyalacontent_id="dlOXRqdTo6jKP9TNwsRFU8DCuUagx20P"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]
Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenews
Photo via Rudaw English