MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish forces forged ahead with their assault Monday on a militant-held town in northern Iraq, but encountered heavy resistance from Islamic State fighters whose snipers fired at the attackers and who used burning tires to create a smoke screen against coalition airstrikes.
The battle for the town of Sinjar has emerged as the latest fighting front in the campaign to chip away at the territory that IS captured in its summer blitz across northern and western Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched their offensive on the town, located some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad), last week. In the opening days of the operation, the Kurds managed to reach thousands of Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the town and sweeping desert plain below.
Peshmerga forces opened up a corridor to the mountain and are regularly bringing truckloads of aid and food to the area.
The clashes have moved to the edges of Sinjar itself, which the militants have held since August.
One Kurdish fighter, Bakhil Elias, said the fighting has been fierce.
"They were using snipers and the peshmerga were responding with machine gun fire, missiles, and anti-aircraft guns," he said before heading back to the front lines with his group of five other fighters.
At least two Kurds have been killed by snipers and 25 wounded in the latest fighting.
Kurdish forces also said the militants are burning tires and oil to create a smoke screen of thick dark clouds to obstruct airstrikes against their positions by the U.S-led coalition.
From a lookout atop Mount Sinjar on Monday, several pillars of thick smoke could be seen billowing over the town. The heavy thud of artillery and crackle of small arms fire echoed up the mountain.
Since its surprise push across Iraq this summer, the Islamic State group has struggled to further expand territory under its control as the Kurds as well as the Iraqi government and allied Shiite militias have found their footing.
In neighboring Syria, where IS also controls a large chunk of land, the militants have become bogged down in the fight for the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border.
Kurdish fighters have been slowly advancing in Kobani in recent weeks with the support of Iraqi peshmerga fighters who came to help. The U.S.-led coalition has also played a key role, carrying out waves of airstrikes against IS positions.
Early Monday, the Kurds captured a cultural center that they had laid siege to over the weekend.
A Kobani-based activist, Mustafa Bali, said the center "is very important morally and militarily" because it is located on a hill that overlooks several neighborhoods east and southeast of the town.
"This will change the military rhythm in the coming days," he said, adding that the aim of Kurdish fighters in Syria is to evict IS militants from Kobani and nearby villages.
The IS began its Kobani offensive in mid-September, and quickly overran much of the town as well as almost all of the surrounding villages. Hundreds of fighters on both sides have been killed since.
Idriss Nassan, a local official in Kobani, said that over the past days the Syrian Kurdish force known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, "has taken the initiative" and advanced in IS-held neighborhoods.
Nassan said peshmerga fighters usually bombard IS positions in the town while YPG fighters carry out the ground attack with the help of airstrikes that target militant positions.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.