MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq — A ground offensive backed by American air power to retake the western Iraqi town of Sinjar from Islamic State fighters began early Thursday, according to a Kurdish official. The objective was to cut a major jihadist supply line between Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul.
A statement from the security council of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq said that up to 7,500 Kurdish pesh merga fighters were moving on “three fronts to cordon off Sinjar City, take control of ISIL’s strategic supply routes, and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.” ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
“Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to pesh merga forces throughout the operation,” the statement said.
Kurdish officials said there could be as many as 700 ISIS fighters in and round Sinjar, including foreign fighters.
Map | Kurds and U.S. Launch Operation to Cut ISIS Route Kurdish and Yazidi fighters, backed by American airpower, began a major offensive to retake Sinjar, Iraq.
As the campaign got underway, long columns of pesh merga vehicles, including pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and a small number of armored vehicles snaked their way across Mount Sinjar as the airstrikes boomed in the distance.
Some of the fighters walked alongside the vehicles, headed for the front.
The pesh merga, to be joined by Yazidi forces, were prepared to sweep down from Mount Sinjar and attack fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, on multiple fronts.
“We have made our plans, but not everything goes according to plan,” Maj. Gen. Aziz Waisi, the commander of the Zeravani Force, which is leading one of the prongs of the Kurdish offensive, said earlier. “It is war, we have a determined enemy, and there are always surprises from ISIS.”
Graphic | Why Cutting a Crucial ISIS Route May Not Stop Flow of Fighters and Supplies The ease of creating roads through the desert could limit the effectiveness of the offensive to cut off a key ISIS supply route.
The operation, which comes as the American-led coalition is trying to regain the initiative in the struggle with the Islamic State, holds out the possibility of progress along a new front in northern Iraq against the militants.
The aim is to add pressure on Islamic State fighters who are being pressed militarily in northeast Syria; are partly encircled in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq; and were recently evicted from Baiji in northern Iraq.
The pesh merga also plan to cut Highway 47, the major east-west road that runs past Sinjar and connects Syria to Mosul, which the Islamic State captured last year. That would hamper the easy movement of fighters, fuel and supplies within the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate and force the militants to resort to less efficient smuggling routes.
Still, the operation faces several important military and political challenges.
Even if the Sinjar campaign succeeds, ISIS still has a stranglehold on vital areas in the region, including the city of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest — and large swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. That includes most of the Sunni Arab heartland of Anbar Province, where a government-led military push has advanced toward Ramadi, but has not moved to retake it from ISIS yet.
Tactically, preparations for the Sinjar offensive have been underway for weeks, and the Islamic State appears to have anticipated the assault and has been sending reinforcements, General Waisi said.
With more than a year to dig in, the militants are also believed to have fortified their positions and made plans for a counterstrike.
Throughout the conflict, the Islamic State has used improvised explosive devices to create dense minefields. The aim is to slow down attacking forces and channel them into “kill zones” so they can be targeted with sniper fire, mortars or machine-gun fire. Many of the houses in Sinjar are believed to be rigged with explosives.
Using suicide car bombs, the militants are also poised to mount counterattacks from Tal Afar to the east, from the towns of Blij and Baaj to the south and from Syria to the west.
“They try to identify a weak point in the defense and then send everything possible to that single point,” General Waisi said. “It starts with suicide bombers and then heavy machine guns. We know their tactics, but there will be surprises.”
The operation on Thursday was timed to coincide with forecasts of several days of clear weather. That would enable the United States to provide more air power, including A-10 attack jets based in Turkey.
Still, coping with the Islamic State’s improvised explosive devices will not be easy for the pesh merga, who suffered losses of more than two dozen killed, virtually all from I.E.D.s, in a recent operation near Kirkuk, according to allied officials.
Unlike the Iraqi Army forces surrounding Ramadi, the pesh merga have not been provided with special breaching equipment, in which a cable festooned with explosives is used to blast a path through a minefield.
The pesh merga have received 40 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, from the United States, 15 of which have special rollers attached to clear mines, although Kurdish officials say the vehicles are not nearly enough given the 600-mile front the Kurds share with the Islamic State. Nor have armored Humvees or armored bulldozers been provided by the Americans.
American officials say that more MRAPs and armored Humvees will be provided if the pesh merga follow through with plans to establish two new brigades that will integrate fighters from the Kurds’ two dominant political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But action to establish those brigades has yet to be taken, and the process of equipping and training them would take several months.
The pesh merga have received hundreds of Milan antitank missiles from Germany and 1,000 AT4 antitank weapons from the United States, officials say. Kurds say the Milan missiles have proved to be the most useful in defending against suicide vehicle attacks, but pesh merga commanders say they need more of them.
The American-led coalition has also provided the pesh merga with a large number of small arms, including machine guns, rifles, mortar tubes and mortar rounds. As the Sinjar offensive has approached, Kurdish officials say, the coalition has been rushing in new supplies of ammunition, as well.
An Italian colonel has been leading a multinational effort to train the Kurdish forces at three bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. American, Canadian and other foreign Special Operations forces have also been advising the pesh merga at their defensive positions in the Kurdish region, although officials said they would not be accompanying the Kurdish forces to Sinjar.
After a year of occupation by the Islamic State, as well as American airstrikes and constant skirmishes, Sinjar is a wreck. Kurdish officials do not plan to immediately return civilians there or to quickly rebuild the town, which could remain vulnerable to occasional artillery and mortar attacks from Islamic State militants to the south.
Still, there have been tensions in recent weeks between the pesh merga and the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is also operating on the Iraqi side of the border. The friction concerns who will participate in the operation and, perhaps more important, who will control the area if the Islamic State were to be pushed out.
Fifteen months after his pesh merga fighters retreated from Sinjar, President Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, is overseeing the operation from a command post in northwest Iraq. Before the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq, the area was a political stronghold for Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, known by the abbreviation K.D.P.
But many Yazidis — a tiny religious minority that was almost entirely based around Mount Sinjar before the Islamic State’s advance — blame the pesh merga for failing to prevent Sinjar’s fall in the first place. That calamity led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, the killing of many Yazidi men and the sexual enslavement of thousands of women.
While a Yazidi regiment is to participate in part of the pesh merga offensive, other Yazidi fighters have been operating independently or are sympathetic to the Syrian Kurdish militia fighters.
“Yazidi support has shifted away from the K.D.P.,” said Christine van den Toorn, who directs the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya. “If Sinjar is to be retaken from ISIS, repopulated and rebuilt, the K.D.P. cannot be the only liberator and ruler.”
Even if Sinjar is retaken and the highway is cut, more military steps will need to be taken if the American-led coalition wants to cut off supplies from Syria to Mosul, said Michael Knights, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It will slow down the flow of Islamic State traffic to and from Mosul,” Mr. Knights said. “That traffic will be forced to move on desert tracks and local roads to the south of Sinjar, which will greatly reduce the flow.
“And if winter rain floods the wadis,” he said, “those secondary routes could be unavailable.”
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