US airstrikes help Kurds reclaim towns from IS
American air strikes over northern Iraq bore their first results on the ground yesterday, as Kurdish forces swept forward in the wake of attacks by US fighter jets on Islamic State (IS) positions south of Erbil.
Bodies of Islamic State jihadists, mangled and broken, lay near their burnt-out, machine-gun-mounted pickup trucks as The Daily Telegraph followed Kurdish Peshmerga forces into the formerly IS-held town of Gwer yesterday.
The attack on Gwer by the Peshmerga followed direct co-ordination with the Americans, Kurdish ground troops said. They had been told to prepare for an attack at 5am. Some skirmishes followed - the tactics were not clear, but may have been an attempt to draw the jihadists into the open.
Then, between 9am and 10am, the fighter jets struck. "I was standing on the bridge over there when they came in," said Shedzah Kakarosh, a Peshmerga fighter. Next to him sat the shell of a truck, the mount of its heavy machine-gun smoking on its base.
US President Barack Obama authorised strikes after IS fighters seized Christian and Yazidi towns and villages in the north of the country last week, killing or driving out their inhabitants, and then took up positions within 30 miles of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
Peshmerga soldiers were angry that they had been ordered to retreat from the towns, which they had been protecting until the middle of last week, and were keen to take advantage of the American strikes.
Sirteep Hussein, who until recently was living in Leeds in England with his family, said he had seen the first American air strikes come in near the town of Kalak west of Erbil on Friday, and score direct hits on IS Humvees - vehicles, ironically, provided to the Iraqi army by the US and then seized by the jihadists as they overran Iraqi army bases in June.
Yesterday, he was stationed on the outskirts of Gwer, as the jets struck again. "We're grateful to President Obama," he said, to the agreement of a group of colleagues. "This we will never forget."
Other Peshmerga say they had the strength to take on IS on their own. Smoke rose all round Gwer yesterday from both the air strikes, which had set the surrounding fields of sunflowers on fire, and in buildings in the town's fruit market, apparently hit by mortars in the subsequent fighting.
That fighting was tough, said Saleh Hasan, another Peshmerga who advanced in the front line and claimed to have fired the first shot of the morning. Even after the air strikes, the IS jihadists stood their ground for three hours before withdrawing in a convoy of vehicles, he said.
A sniper from a rooftop prevented them advancing on the scene of the US strikes for three or four hours, pinning them down. When they overran the area, the jihadists had taken the bodies of the dead with them.
By early afternoon, the Peshmerga were able to enter the town in a convoy of vehicles and take up positions on the further side, where shooting continued.
In the wake of their advance, a crowd gathered around the bodies of three jihadists, one cut in two, another headless, all scorched by the American bombing. One was said by some to be a local man, but one was black, judging by his legs, which were all that were identifiable of his body.
Many local Kurds are angry with the IS, especially since so many are foreign, for destroying a local economy that had been prospering due to the foreign investment pouring into Erbil, the Kurdish capital, less than an hour's drive away. A petrol refinery lies abandoned ten minutes up the road.
The American attacks had enabled the vanguard of the Peshmerga to move forward to the crossroads in front of Gwer, triggering a pincer movement from two other units, one from the west, from the direction of Mosul, which is in IS hands, and one from Kirkuk, held by the Kurds.
The Kurds last night said they had also taken the town of Makhmur to the south-west. The Kurdish brigadier-general in charge of forces there, Ali Suleiman, told The Daily Telegraph he was urging the Americans to send more help "in the defence of Western civilisation".
"These people are here to destroy civilisation," he said. "We are here to defend not only our people but western civilisation." (© The Daily Telegraph)