ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Sunni Muslim Arab fighters backed by Kurdish forces and U.S.-led air strikes retook a village in northern Iraq on Wednesday in an example of effective military cooperation on the ground between them against Islamic State insurgents.
The offensive in the Makhmour district south of Erbil began early on Wednesday, resulting in the recapture of Kudila - part of a series of planned operations to clear Islamic State from the area, Kurdish and Arab commanders said.
Kurdish forces have driven the ultra-hardline Sunni militants back in northern Iraq, but have been reluctant to push further into predominantly Arab territory for fear of being seen as an occupying force by inhabitants and provoking a backlash.
Local Sunni Arabs have been training in the Makhmour area as part of the Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of mainly Shi’ite Muslim militias in which Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi would like to include Sunni groups.
“In coordination with the (Kurdish) peshmerga and supported by coalition planes they have a plan to clear and liberate all the areas that the terrorists seized,” said peshmerga commander Qader Qader. “These attacks will continue”.
Speaking via phone from Kudila with the sound of heavy machine gun fire in the background, one peshmerga said Islamic State had deployed three suicide car bombs to fend off the assault and at least eight militants had been killed.
Sheikh Faris al-Sabaawi, one of the three commanders of the Hashid Shaabi force in the area, said he could see militants’ body parts scattered around the village, which was used to launch rockets on Makhmour.
The Hashid Shaabi retook another village in the area in coordination with the peshmerga several days ago. “We work as one team,” Sabaawi said.
The Hashid Shaabi will advance toward the Islamic State stronghold of Qayara, around 10 km (6 miles) further west, Sabaawi said. This ultimately would increase the pressure on Islamic State-held Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city, which the peshmerga have partly surrounded.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State aims to recapture Mosul this year, working with Iraqi government forces, and drive the jihadis out of Raqqa, their stronghold in northeast Syria, Arab and Western officials say.
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi has said the Mosul operation will be launched in the first half of 2016.
Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich