Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the US-led air campaign, launched an assault Thursday aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar, which ISIS overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the US to launch airstrikes against the militants. A statement from the Kurdish Regional Security Council said some 7,500 peshmerga fighters are closing in on the mountain town from three fronts in an effort to take control of the town and cut off a strategic supply line used by ISIS militants. The statement also said the operation, dubbed Operation Free Sinjar, is aimed at establishing "a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery."
Peshmerga fighters and the militants exchanged heavy gunfire in the early hours Thursday as Kurdish fighters began their approach amid heavy aerial bombardment. An AP team saw a small American unit at the top of a hill along the front line calling in and confirming airstrikes. The major objective of the offensive is to completely cut off Highway 47, which passes by Sinjar and indirectly links the militants' two biggest strongholds—Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq—as a route for goods, weapons, and fighters. Coalition-backed Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border are now working to retake parts of that corridor. (Read more Sinjar stories.)