IRBIL, Iraq — Kurdish forces pushed Tuesday to retake territory they lost over the weekend to the Islamic State in a major counteroffensive that will test the ability of the best-trained military force in Iraq to confront the radical Islamist group.
Kurdish forces made up of thousands of insurgents from Turkey and Syria attacked Islamic State positions at Sinjar, one of three Iraqi cities that fell to the Islamic State over the weekend, while peshmerga militias loyal to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government pressed to lift the Islamic State’s siege of the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest and an important source of electricity. The Islamists almost overran the dam over the weekend.
U.S. officials said they were working with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad to counter the Islamic State’s advance. But it was unclear what materiel assistance, if any, the United States was lending to the fight.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in Washington said requested U.S. equipment intended to counter the sophisticated American weaponry that the Islamic State had captured in its June sweep of three Iraqi provinces had yet to arrive.
“We’ve been asking for all sorts of equipment,” said Karwan Zebari, who added that among the requested hardware were armored vehicles and heavy artillery. Front-line peshmerga commanders have “been promised stuff,” he said, “but they haven’t gotten anything yet.”
American officials were careful to say that U.S. weapons could be provided only through the government in Baghdad, which has a tense relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government. One State Department official said Obama administration officials were using the Islamic State advance “to engage with Baghdad and Irbil to enhance cooperation on the security front.” The U.S. official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The entry of the Turkish and Syrian Kurds into the fight in Iraq marked a surprising new stage in the unfolding efforts to counter the Islamic State, and was a reminder that national borders have become insignificant in response to the Islamists, who themselves have proclaimed a caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria they control and are also fighting in Lebanon.
The Kurdish fighters identified themselves as “local self-defense” units, known by the Kurdish acronym YPG, which have been active in battling the Islamists in northern Syria for the past two years. But the YPG is generally considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party — known as the PKK, its Kurdish initials — a group that’s been fighting for Kurdish independence in Turkey for three decades and that the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization.
The PKK lent its support to the offensive in a statement posted on its website late Monday. “All Kurds in the north, east, south and west must rise up against the attack on Kurds in Sinjar,” the statement said.
Thousands of Kurdish residents of Sinjar known as Yazidis fled across the deserts and mountains of northern Iraq after the Islamic State seized the city. A religious minority whose beliefs are considered heretical by the radical Sunni Muslims of the Islamic State, Yazidis have been targeted for years by Islamist radicals, including coordinated bombings in 2007 that killed hundreds.
Eyewitness reports from Sinjar described widespread executions of Yazidis who had been unable to flee in time, as well as the destruction of several religious shrines. A member of parliament who is from the area made an emotional plea for help Tuesday.
“The innocent people of Sinjar were slaughtered. Men were killed and women have been taken as slaves by Islamic State fighters,” the member, Vian Dakheel, said on the floor of parliament in Baghdad before bursting into tears and collapsing.
Tens of thousands of Sinjar residents who did escape appear to have been surrounded by Islamic State forces in a mountain range north of the city, where the Iraqi government has attempted to drop supplies to aid what humanitarian groups have called a looming disaster. The extent of the effectiveness of the supply drop couldn’t be confirmed but a top official from Amnesty International in the area said in a statement that the situation was dire.
“The civilians trapped in the mountain area are not only at risk of being killed or abducted by ISIS; they are also suffering from a lack of water, food and medical care. They are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser.
Television stations associated with the PKK claimed Tuesday that the city had been liberated by the YPG fighters, but television stations in Irbil reported interviews with residents of the town who said the militants continued to occupy at least parts of the city amid heavy fighting.
Independent verification of the situation was impossible Tuesday because of limited mobile phone service in the area.
What further steps the United States might take to assist was unclear. U.S statements on the Islamic State advance over the weekend indicated that the U.S. was providing intelligence information to the Kurdish and Iraqi governments about Islamic State forces.
But the provision of weapons remained a mystery. Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday in The Washington Post that the United States was providing weapons to the Kurds under an agreement with Baghdad. He also wrote that the U.S. “is also coordinating Iraqi air attacks against Islamic State targets relevant to the defense of the Kurdish region.”
There was no confirmation of either claim by any current U.S. official, however. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby flatly denied the assertion about air attacks. “We’re not coordinating air attacks in Iraq. We’re not,” he said. But he declined to answer a question about whether the U.S. was providing weapons to the peshmerga.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this story from Washington.