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ISIS advance takes Iraqi Kurds by surprise - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iraqi Yazidis demonstrate outside the UN offices in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, on August 4, 2014. (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

Iraqi Yazidis demonstrate outside the UN offices in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, on August 4, 2014. (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Kurdish military commanders and observers have been left stunned by an offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq over the weekend which has seen the group seize control of a number of areas from Kurdish forces.

Reports over the weekend said ISIS fighters had captured a number of towns in northern Iraq, and came close to seizing Iraq’s largest dam.

According to news agency reports, ISIS seized the town of Zammar in the face of strong resistance from the Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, as well as the town of Sinjar.

ISIS fighters also took control of the Ain Zalah oil field, adding it to the four oil fields it already controls.

The group issued a statement on its website which said it had taken control of a number of important areas from Kurdish “gangs and secular militias,” following a series of battles which lasted a full day.

The statement added that in addition to Zammar and oil-rich Ain Zalah, the jihadists took control of the areas of 12 other villages, securing the organization’s hold on the area where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet.

A spokesman for Iraqi Yazidis living in the area said 40,000 members of the religious minority living in the area seized by ISIS had been forced to flee.

On Sunday, Jawhar Ali Begg told Reuters that thousands more had been killed by the organization, which he said had ordered many Yazidis to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be executed.

Ghayath Sawraji, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Mosul, told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS fighters attacked a number of Kurdish and Yazidi areas, taking control of them after battles with Peshmerga forces.

He added that ISIS possessed a large quantity of heavy weapons which they took following the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from Mosul last month. “Following violent battles, the Peshmerga forces ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw, allowing ISIS to take control of the whole area,” he said.

Meanwhile, a source at the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat his forces began moving into Iraq on Saturday evening in order to reinforce Iraqi–Kurdish Peshmerga units.

The source added that 600 fighters crossed the border and were “now alongside the Peshmerga on the front to fight ISIS in the area of Rabia.” He said his forces were prepared to participate in the liberation of Zammar and Sinjar.

A Peshmerga source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the first arms shipment of American heavy weapons arrived in Erbil airport and were sent to the battlefront immediately.” He said the shipment included weapons which the Peshmerga did not previously have.

The Peshmerga Ministry, meanwhile, denied that Kurdistan received any American weapons. The Ministry’s media official Halkord Hikmat denied the reports, calling them “baseless.”

Kurdish forces attempting to re-take the region will also have air support from the Iraqi air force, a senior spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces said on Monday.

The announcement comes despite growing tensions in recent months between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

While relatively small, the Iraqi air force has recently received a boost in the form of a number of Sukhoi SU-25 combat jets, optimised for supporting ground troops and counter-insurgency warfare, from Russia and Iran.