Kurdish fighters backed by US launch assault on IS
Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the US-led air campaign, launched an assault aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar from the Islamic State (IS) group.
It was 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.
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 and cut off a strategic supply line used by IS militants.
It said the Kurds wish to establish "a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery".
Peshmerga fighters and the militants exchanged heavy gunfire as the assault began.
The major objective of the offensive is to cut off one of IS's most active supply lines, 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.
"If you take out this major road, that is going to slow down the movement of (IS's quick reaction force) elements," said Captain Chance McCraw, a military intelligence officer with the coalition.
"If they're trying to move from Raqqa over to Mosul, they're going to have to take these back roads and go through the desert, and it's going take hours, maybe days longer to get across."
But Sinjar, located at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 30 miles from the Syrian border, is not an easy target.
One attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December, and the militants have been reinforcing their ranks in Sinjar recently in expectation of an assault.
Sinjar was captured by IS in August last year shortly after the extremists seized Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and blitzed across northern Iraq.
In the Sinjar area, the group inflicted a wave of terror against the minority Yazidi community, members of an ancient religion whom the IS group views as heretics and accuses of worshipping the devil.
An untold number were killed in the assault, and hundreds of men and women were kidnapped - the women enslaved and given to militants across the group's territory in Iraq and Syria, many of the men believed killed, others forced to convert.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, where the militants surrounded them, leaving them trapped and exposed in the blazing heat.
The crisis prompted the US to launch air drops of aid to the stranded, and then on August 8, it launched the first round of airstrikes in what would mark the beginning of a broader coalition effort to battle the militant group in Iraq and Syria.
Various Kurdish militias on the town's edge have been fighting in guerrilla battles for months with IS fighters in Sinjar.
The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), the Syria-based People's Protection Units better known as the YPG, and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi peshmerga have also held positions further outside the town.