Kurdish troops backed by warplanes battled the Islamic State group on three fronts in northern Iraq Tuesday, clawing back land lost to the jihadists in recent months.
The peshmerga struck before dawn against the town of Rabia on the Syrian border, north of the jihadist-controlled second city Mosul, and south of key oil hub Kirkuk, officers said.
A senior peshmerga source said troops had entered Rabia, after seizing the villages of As-Saudiyah and Mahmudiyah.
“Ground troops are in the centre of Rabia,” about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Mosul.
One officer said the town was under full peshmerga control but a leader of the Sunni Shammar tribe fighting alongside them said there were still pockets of resistance.
Peshmerga forces, backed by artillery and warplanes, also attacked Zumar, about 60 kilometres northwest of the city, near the reservoir of Iraq’s largest dam, which has been a key battleground between the Kurds and jihadists.
“We have ousted IS from 30 positions, including in the Zumar and Rabia areas,” spokesman Halgord Hekmat said.
Both Rabia and Zumar were areas the peshmerga seized in the chaos that followed the jihadists’ capture of Mosul in a lightning offensive in early June.
Two months later, IS forces made a fresh push and took both places in stinging setbacks to the peshmerga, one of the reasons for the US air campaign that began on August 8.
The officer, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the press, would not elaborate on the nature of the air support received in Zumar.
– Push on to Sinjar –
France has carried out air strikes in Iraq, and Britain conducted its first strikes there Tuesday, destroying two targets in an unspecified location in the northwest.
“The advance on Rabia will facilitate efforts to recapture Sinjar. We cannot reach Sinjar without taking Rabia,” Hekmat said.
Sinjar is a town further southwest which the jihadists captured in early August, prompting tens of thousands of civilians — mostly from the Yazidi minority — to flee their homes.
In one of the most dramatic episodes of the nearly four-month-old conflict, some Yazidis were besieged for days in nearby mountains where they took refuge, while others were killed or abducted during their flight from the town.
The US Central Command said it had carried out air strikes on the Syrian side of the border, near Sinjar, either Monday or Tuesday.
South of Kirkuk, peshmerga forces retook several villages around the town of Daquq, that had been under jihadist control since June 10, also with air support.
“They have liberated the villages of Saad and Khaled. The peshmerga have taken full control of the area, following fierce fighting,” General Westa Rasul said.
They encountered stiff resistance in the nearby village of Al-Wahda, he said.
Senior peshmerga officers and the head of Daquq council Amir Khua Karam told AFP the Kurdish troops later pulled out of the villages to allow for air strikes.
Strikes that local sources said were carried out by the Iraqi air force began in the evening.
“The Islamic State was dealt a big blow today. The withdrawal was tactical, to make way for strikes by the Iraqi air force and the international coalition,” Karam said.
A peshmerga officer and the health directorate said Tuesday’s fighting killed six peshmerga and policemen, as well as an unknown number of jihadists.
Among those killed were three policemen who died when one tried to remove a booby-trapped jihadist flag from a freshly conquered position near Daquq.
The clashes also wounded 52, among them 18 civilians.
Meanwhile, the Kirkuk governorate ordered a strict curfew on the city of Kirkuk from midnight (2100 GMT), tol remain in place until further notice.
No reason was given for the measure.