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Kurds unite to oust Iraq jihadists, rescue stranded civilians

Kurdish fighters from Iraq, Syria and Turkey were coordinating operations in northern Iraq on Wednesday (Aug 6) to reclaim areas lost to jihadists and rescue thousands of civilians stranded in nearby mountains.

ARBIL: Kurdish fighters from Iraq, Syria and Turkey were coordinating operations in northern Iraq on Wednesday (Aug 6) to reclaim areas lost to jihadists and rescue thousands of civilians stranded in nearby mountains.

The fate of the civilians from the Yazidi minority, who fled to the Sinjar mountains after an attack by the Islamic State (IS) group at the weekend, has sparked international concern. In a series of raids west and north of their main Iraqi hub of Mosul in recent days, IS fighters took over the towns of Sinjar and Zumar, further secured the border with Syria by seizing Rabia and bagged several oilfields in the process.

A senior official from Iraq's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party said Kurdish fighting units from the homegrown peshmerga, the Syrian-based PYD and the Turkish PKK had agreed to share responsibility for the ongoing counter-offensive.

"The fighters of West Kurdistan and the PKK are responsible for confronting Daash (IS's former Arabic acronym) in Rabia and the Sinjar area," said Hallo Penjweny, the PUK's top official for the Mosul region. "On our side, we are taking care of Zumar and the rest of the area north and east of Mosul," he told reporters.

Sinjar is west of Mosul, Iraq's second city.

West Kurdistan refers to the Syrian democratic Union Party (PYD), which claims it has already retaken Rabia but it remains unclear how much progress they have made in the Sinjar area. "The PKK fighters have reached the Jabal Sinjar area, where they are protecting the Sinjaris from attacks" by jihadists, Penjweny said.

But another PUK official warned it could be some time before the civilians can be rescued. "The PKK is working to open a safe passage for the displaced; it is not easy and it will require days," Harem Kamal Agha told AFP.

KURDISH UNITY

The peshmerga are considered the most able military force in Iraq, but their government has been cash-strapped of late and they have struggled to hold the territory they grabbed when federal soldiers retreated in the face of an initial IS onslaught two months ago. Their withdrawal from Sinjar after hours battling IS militants, left civilians running for their lives. Notable among them are Yazidis, who are stigmatised as "devil-worshippers" by the jihadists because of their unique blend of beliefs and practices.

A Yazidi lawmaker broke down in tears during a parliamentary session on Tuesday (Aug 5) as she urged the government and the international community to save her community from being massacred or starved into extinction. "Over the past 48 hours, 30,000 families have been besieged in the Sinjar mountains, with no water and no food," said Vian Dakhil. "We are being slaughtered; our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity."

On Tuesday, the UN Security Council condemned the latest IS attack and said it "may constitute a crime against humanity." A Kurdish human rights official said Iraqi army helicopters had been dropping food and water to civilians cowering in the mountains.

The peshmerga are grappling with IS attacks hundreds of kilometres further down the front but also east of Mosul, only a few dozen kilometres from the Kurdish capital Arbil.

On Wednesday, a suicide car bomb exploded at a peshmerga checkpoint between Mosul and Arbil, killing one peshmerga and wounding 13, security sources and witnesses said. "The peshmerga identified a suicide attacker and opened fire to stop him but he was close enough when he detonated his bomb," one said. Harem Kamal Agha said peshmerga forces had repelled several attacks on Wednesday in Christian-dominated areas east of Mosul.

The shortcoming of Iraq's army and mounting concern that the Islamic State would seek to consolidate and expand its self-proclaimed "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq have led to the unprecedented Kurdish coordination. The military leader of the PKK, who is hosted in Iraq's Kandil mountains by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) called Tuesday for a coordinated effort.

"Let's form a joint command. Let's make preparations and take IS out of the areas it occupied, including Sinjar. This is possible," Murat Karayilan said. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also spoke on the phone with KRG President Massud Barzani to discuss "the current situation in Iraq." 

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