Kurdish Iraqis enter Sinjar in push to oust IS fighters

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NTP: Kurdish Iraqis enter Sinjar in push to oust ISIS fighters
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Kurdish Iraqis enter Sinjar in push to oust IS fighters
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: A member of a Kurdish special forces regiment watches from a hilltop as US-led coalition airstrike targets a Islamic State position while a large convoy of Kurdish peshmerga forces drives to Sinjar city during a major offensive to expel Islamic State militants. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter pauses during an operation to retake the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the U.S.-led air campaign, launched an assault Thursday aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the militants. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Smoke rises over Sinjar, northern Iraq from oil fires set by Islamic State militants as Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, launch a major assault on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. The strategic town of Sinjar was overran last year by the Islamic State group in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the United States to launch the air campaign against the militants. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: Peshmerga forces walk towards a gathering point ahead of a major offensive launched today to expel Islamic State militants from Sinjar, Iraq. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A Kurdish fighter, known as a peshmerga, lies underneath a blanket, overlooking the town of Sinjar, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: Members of a Kurdish special forces stand on a hilltop as a major offensive to take control of Sinjar city is underway. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Kurdish fighters watch in the early morning as they fight against the Islamic State group in Sinjar, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Smoke believed to be from an airstrike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the U.S.-led air campaign, launched an assault Thursday aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the militants. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Iraqi Kurdish forces take part in an operation backed by US-led strikes in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, Mosul province, on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. The autonomous Kurdish region's security council said up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters would take part in the operation, which aims to retake Sinjar 'and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the (town) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.' AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: Peshmerga forces walk towards a gathering point ahead of a major offensive launched today to expel Islamic State militants from Sinjar, Iraq. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: A peshmerga soldier smokes a cigarette in front of a wall decorated with weapons and spray-painted with the phrase 'Long Live the Peshmerga' by mount Sinjar, Iraq. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Kurdish forces sit at a post with the Kurdish flag as they prepare for battling the Islamic State group on the frontline in Sinjar to liberate the northern Iraqi town Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Smoke believed to be from an airstrike billows over the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the U.S.-led air campaign, launched an assault Thursday aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the militants. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
A Kurdish fighter, known as a peshmerga, yawns as he stands guard on the frontline in Sinjar, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: Smoke from a US-led coalition airtrike billows above Sinjar city as a major offensive launched today to expel Islamic State militants from the Iraqi city is underway. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Smoke rises over Sinjar, northern Iraq from oil fires set by Islamic State militants as Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, launch a major assault on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. The strategic town of Sinjar was overran last year by the Islamic State group in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the United States to launch the air campaign against the militants. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
A Kurdish force stands guard at a post as the sun rises on the frontline with the Islamic State group in Sinjar, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga fighters in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul, looks on as smoke billows during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led strikes in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
The frontline between the Kurdish forces with coalition partners and the Islamic States group is seen in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
MOSUL, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 12: Smoke rises after the Peshmerga forces belonging to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) attack the Sinjar town of Mosul, Iraq during an operation carried out to clear the region from Daesh terrorists on November 12, 2015. (Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Heavy smoke covers the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led strikes on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. The autonomous Kurdish region's security council said up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters would take part in the operation, which aims to retake Sinjar 'and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the (town) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.' AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands guard in fighting against the Islamic State group as the sun rises in Sinjar, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Officials with the Iraqi Kurdish militia said they are preparing to push their large-scale military operation into the center of Sinjar, the strategic mountain town in northern Iraq currently in the hands of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Kurdish peshmerga fighters fire into the the air while celebrating the retaking of of Sinjar, northern Iraq, Friday Nov. 13, 2015. Iraqi Kurdish militias battling to take back Sinjar from Islamic State militants raised a Kurdish flag and fired off celebratory gunfire in the center of town, though U.S. and Kurdish officials cautioned that it was too soon to declare victory in a major offensive to retake the strategic community.(AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Kurdish peshmerga fighters enter the town of Sinjar on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 after they took it from the Islamic State group in a joint operation with the coalition forces. Iraqi Kurdish militias battling to take back Sinjar from Islamic State militants raised a Kurdish flag and fired off celebratory gunfire in the center of town, though U.S. and Kurdish officials cautioned that it was too soon to declare victory in a major offensive to retake the strategic community.(AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands next to a destroyed building inside the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Iraqi Kurdish militias battling to take back Sinjar from Islamic State militants raised a Kurdish flag and fired off celebratory gunfire in the center of town, though U.S. and Kurdish officials cautioned that it was too soon to declare victory in a major offensive to retake the strategic community.(AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
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SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish militias battling to take back Sinjar from Islamic State militants raised a Kurdish flag in the center of town and a top official said it was liberated Friday, though U.S. and Kurdish military officials urged caution in declaring victory in a major offensive to retake the strategic community.

The Kurdish forces encountered little resistance, at least initially, suggesting that many of the IS fighters may have pulled back in anticipation of Friday's advance. It was also possible that they could be biding their time before striking back.

Kurdish militia fighters known as peshmerga launched a major offensive to retake Sinjar and succeeded in cutting a key nearby highway on Thursday. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes supported the offensive, dubbed Operation Free Sinjar.

The town has been under the control of the Islamic State group for more than a year. The town was overrun by the extremists as they rampaged across Iraq in August 2014, leading to the killing, enslavement and flight of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community.

"We promised, we have liberated Sinjar," Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told fighters in Sinjar. "It's time for the Yazidi girls to raise their heads up. Revenge has been taken for them."

"Sinjar is very important because it's become a symbol of injustice against the Kurdish people," he added.

Peshmerga Maj. Ghazi Ali, who oversees one of the units involved in the offensive, said thousands of Kurdish fighters entered the town from three directions Friday morning. Associated Press journalists saw them raise a flag over a building in the center of the city.

They encountered minimal resistance during Friday's push, Ali said.

"No one was fighting back. They placed some IEDs and had some snipers in position, but there were no clashes," he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive devices, a military term for homemade roadside bombs.

Gunfire fell silent as peshmerga fighters marched into the town. He described the situation in the city as still dangerous, however, and warned that it was too soon to declare victory.

"I can't say the operation is complete because there are still threats remaining inside Sinjar," he said. The risks include ambushes from suicide bombers, roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses, he added.

Iraq's highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, praised peshmerga fighters in his Friday sermon for their efforts to capture Sinjar from the Sunni militant group.

Col. Steven Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, confirmed only that peshmerga fighters raised their flag on grain silos in the eastern part of the town. He said they had not fully retaken Sinjar.

There is reason for officials' caution. An earlier attempt to wrest back control of the town, at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Syrian border, stalled in December. Militants have since been reinforcing their ranks.

The fight to dislodge IS militants from the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria, meanwhile, took about four months — despite hundreds of U.S. airstrikes in support of the Kurdish fighters.

Islamic State extremists overran Sinjar as they rampaged across Iraq in August 2014, leading to the killing, enslavement and flight of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community. Its members follow an ancient faith that the Islamic State group considers heretical.

The U.S. later launched an air campaign against the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL, ISIS and, in Arabic, as Daesh.

Hundreds of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles carrying Kurdish fighters were seen gathering at the entrance of Sinjar earlier Friday ahead of a planned push into the town center.

Diar Namo, the 26-year-old deputy commander of the peshmerga unit stationed there, said the skies above Sinjar were largely quiet overnight following intense coalition airstrikes on Thursday.

From his frontline observation post, he said he saw little movement inside the city before Kurdish forces moved in.

"We saw more than 50 Daesh (fighters) flee overnight," Namo said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, "Before there were only 200 to 300 in the city."

Officials with the U.S.-led coalition estimated there were between 400 and 550 IS fighters inside Sinjar before the offensive began Thursday.

Southeast of Sinjar, in the village of Soulag, four peshmerga fighters were killed when a homemade bomb targeting their truck exploded, according to fighters in their unit.

Homemade roadside bombs and explosives-laden cars targeting peshmerga convoys significantly slowed Thursday's advance through Sinjar's eastern and western fringe.

The blasts continued Friday. Just an hour after the first Kurdish forces entered Sinjar, an Associated Press team saw an explosion 700 meters (yards) from the northern edge of town.

Ali said he will only consider the operation a success once Sinjar is completely free of land mines and homemade bombs.

"We are waiting on the engineering team," he said, referring to the teams of peshmerga who specialize in diffusing explosives. "Right now, it depends on them."

Raw: Kurds Seize Control of Central Sinjar From IS
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