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Kurdish Fighters Roll Toward Sinjar In Battle To Retake Strategic Iraqi Town

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The battle to push ISIS out of the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar is happening. The offensive started with U.S. airstrikes, and now convoys of Kurdish fighters - they're called Peshmerga - are rolling toward Sinjar, which has been controlled by a few hundred ISIS fighters for more than a year. It was the massacre of people from the minority Yazidi sect in Sinjar that got the U.S. to start the airstrikes over a year ago. On the phone, we have reporter and photographer Ayman Oghanna. He is in the town of Snuny just outside of Sinjar. And thanks for being with us today.

AYMAN OGHANNA: Thanks for having me, Kelly.

MCEVERS: As I said, Kurdish troops are on the move. Can you tell us where are they now? How close are they to Sinjar?

OGHANNA: Well, last night, the coalition and American airstrikes pounded the city, and today, thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga forces came in from the East and the West, flanking the city with the idea that they'll move in to Sinjar itself tomorrow morning.

MCEVERS: How difficult is this fight going to be once they get there?

OGHANNA: The difficulty is not necessarily in taking the city, I think, or at least not only. I think in the next few days, we'll probably see an announcement saying that Kurdish forces are taking the city. But gaining control in term of securing it is going to be very difficult. ISIS have used an unprecedented number of IEDs, and from what we've seen today, they're leaving snipers and suicide bombers in certain areas, making it very difficult to stabilize and secure the area. So we'll probably see at least a couple of weeks before it'll be a safe enough place for former residents to reenter back into the city.

MCEVERS: What about the people who are still there in Sinjar? What's the situation like for them?

OGHANNA: Well, there's not many. You'd mentioned it's a strategically important town, and that's certainly true. But in many respects, it's a symbolically huge town, and the reason is, is because when ISIS took control of Sinjar in terms of the popular imagination, that was really the birth and genesis of the ISIS myth. This, you know, attempted genocide of this religious minority really caught popular attention of the entire world.

MCEVERS: And assuming the town is retaken, will this then pave the way for retaking other areas that are controlled by ISIS?

OGHANNA: I think we're a long way off from seeing, you know, Iraq being liberated from ISIS. As you said, this really was an operation that should've happened earlier, but I think because of the previously mentioned symbolic importance of Sinjar not only to ISIS but also to the Peshmerga and the Kurdish forces, if they manage to retake it, it will be symbolically a massive boost to Kurds, to Iraqis and to the coalition as a whole in terms of rolling back ISIS. But I think it's still going to be quite a long fight.

MCEVERS: Reporter and photographer Ayman Oghanna outside of Sinjar, Iraq. Thanks so much.

OGHANNA: Thanks for having me, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.