The Islamic State is reported to have taken control of the city of Sinjar as well as the Mosul Dam, at least one oil field, and a handful of towns in northern Ninewa province after Kurdish forces withdrew from the area this weekend.
Islamic State fighters first took control of Zumar, a town east of the Tigris River and about 50 miles south of Mosul, after attacking today “from three directions in pick-up trucks mounted with weapons,” Reuters reported. Kurdish forces withdrew after fighting for 24 hours. On Aug. 1, Kurdish military officials claimed to have killed 20 Islamic State fighters and captured 20 more in Zumar, and also said the Peshmerga are reinforcing the area after receiving “advanced weapons” from the US. On Aug. 2, a Kurdish official said that 14 Peshmerga troops and more than 100 Islamic State fighters were killed during the fighting.
After seizing Zumar, Islamic State fighters today reportedly took control of the city of Sinjar, which sits near the Syrian border and is west of Tal Afar and Mosul, two cities currently under Islamic State control. In Sinjar, Kurdish forces retreated after putting up “little resistance.” Islamic State fighters also took over the Mosul Dam, after “Kurdish troops had loaded their vehicles with belongings including air conditioners and fled,”Reuters reported.
In addition, the Ain Zalah and Butmah oil fields, as well as four oil wells, lie just north of the dam and are thought to be under the control of the Islamic State. The jihadist group controls dams and oil infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria, and uses the resources to fund its operations.
The Islamic State is also said to be fighting Kurdish forces in Rabaih, a town on the border with Syria.
The Islamic State claimed to have killed “dozens” of Kurdish Peshmerga and to have seized “a large quantity of weapons and equipment” during the takeover of Sinjar. The jihadist group made the claims, which could not be confirmed, in a statement released on the Ninewa Division’s Twitter page.
The United Nations’ envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that “[a] humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” as more than 200,000 people are thought to have fled Sinjar to the nearby Jalab Sinjar mountains to escape the Islamic State’s advance. “The humanitarian situation of these civilians is reported as dire, and they are in urgent need of basic items including food, water and medicine,” a UN statement said, according to AFP.
It is unclear if the Peshmerga are abandoning the areas, which have been held by Kurdish forces for years, or withdrew temporarily to organize their forces. A Peshmerga spokesman said today that Kurdish forces are preparing to go on the offensive after receiving heavy weapons. One official said the Peshmerga are preparing to retake Sinjar by attacking “from four different directions.”
The Islamic State’s takeover of Sinjar, Zumar, and the Mosul Dam constitutes the group’s first major gains after a blitzkrieg offensive launched on June 10 in conjunction with allied groups that put it in control of Mosul, Tikrit, and a number of cities and towns in Salahaddin, Ninewa, and Diyala provinces. That offensive stalled on the outskirts of Samarra, just north of Bagdad. Meanwhile, the Islamic State controls most of Anbar province and much of northern Babil province. The fighting has largely stalemated as Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias, including many supported by Iran, have failed to regain lost ground but have held most areas under their control.
Across the border in Syria, the Islamic State has taken control of most of Deir al Zour province and has made gains in Homs province as well. Large areas of Raqqah, Hasakah, and Aleppo provinces are also under Islamic State control.
The Islamic State, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, declared the establishment of its caliphate on June 29, and appointed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim. Baghdadi appeared for the first time in public at a mosque in Mosul on July 4.
The declaration of the caliphate is controversial in jihadist circles and among Islamic State allies such as the Baathists and other insurgent groups in Iraq. Several al Qaeda affiliates as well as well-respected jihadist ideologues have denounced the Islamic State’s announcement as premature and said the group did not properly consult leading clerics and jihadist groups.