Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have closed in to within five miles of Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital in Iraq, despite fierce ISIS counterattacks.
“Two Peshmerga factions linked up after surrounding the empty town of Bashiqa, about eight miles east of Mosul, with the support of coalition air power. They were able to cordon off eight villages in an area measuring approximately 38 square miles and secure a significant stretch of the Bashiqa-Mosul highway to limit ISIS’ freedom of movement,” reported CNN on Sunday, citing the Peshmerga general command.
The BBC provides a conflicting report that states Bashiqa is not empty but rather besieged on three sides by cautious Kurdish forces, who worry about suicide-bomb attacks. The Turks have been providing artillery support for the Kurdish attempt to seize Bashiqa.
This is actually their second attempt — an offensive last week was abandoned after “fierce fighting with heavily armed ISIS militants inside the town.” The UK Guardian reported this resistance included “suicide attacks, buildings filled with homemade bombs, and militants using tunnel networks to reappear in ‘cleared areas’ to launch fresh ambushes.”
A Peshmerga commander told the BBC that the road from Bashiqa to Mosul has been cut, and Kurdish forces are currently digging trenches around the town to prepare for an assault.
The Kurds made these gains with substantial assistance from Turkey, which has provided both troops and equipment, to the consternation of the Iraqi government. Turkey’s disposition toward the Kurds in Syria is also very different from the cooperation afforded to Iraqi Kurds in the Mosul theater.
“In a significant development on Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that Turkish troops – who have been training Peshmerga and Sunni Arab tribal fighters near Bashiqa – were involved in the battle, despite strong objections from the Iraqi government,” the BBC reports.
However, the Iraqi military’s joint operations command flatly denied “Turkish participation of any kind in operations” in the Nineveh province.
Reuters reports that “about 80 Islamic State-held villages and towns have been retaken in the first week of the offensive.” Over 770 ISIS fighters have been killed during the offensive. ISIS claims to have killed hundreds of fighters from the attacking force in return.
“In a series of counter-attacks on far-flung targets across Iraq since Friday, Islamic State fighters have hit Kirkuk, the north’s main oil city, the town of Rutba that controls the road from Baghdad to Jordan and Syria, and Sinjar, a region west of Mosul inhabited by the persecuted Yazidi minority,” Reuters added, quoting Yazidi provincial chief Mahma Xelil’s contention that the fighting in Sinjar was “the most violent in the area in the last year.”
True to character, the Islamic State is leaving plenty of carnage behind. A senior intelligence officer told the BBC that ISIS is using civilians as human shields and executing suspected informants. CNN cites an Iraqi intelligence source who spoke of ISIS militants rounding up and shooting 284 men and boys in a “savage show of force.”
The BBC’s correspondent indicated there were signs the Islamic State’s counterattack on Kirkuk had been effective at drawing some 2,000 Peshmerga fighters away from the Mosul offensive.
In a hopeful note, CNN reports that church bells rang in the Christian town of Hamdaniya for the first time in two years as Iraqi troops drove out the Islamic State, killing an estimated 200 militants in the process. The Iraqi military is currently working on clearing the town of improvised explosive devices and searching for hidden ISIS terrorists.