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Kurdish forces cut off key Islamic State route in Iraq

American airstrikes hammered Sinjar as the Kurdish Peshmerga ground force began an offensive on the Iraqi town held by the Islamic State. Gwen Ifill reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A new front opened today in the war with no apparent end in sight. Kurdish forces in Iraq, with U.S. support, launched an assault on a key city that links Islamic State holdings in two countries.

    American airstrikes hammered Sinjar on Iraq's far northwestern border with Syria, as the Kurdish Peshmerga ground force began its offensive.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    It started just now. The situation so far is good. There are continuous airstrikes on them. We are also hitting them with artillery.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The objective, to capture not only the city, but a key supply route, Highway 47. It connects the Islamic State's makeshift capital in Raqqa, Syria, to outposts in Iraq, including Mosul.

    We reached Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times late today, just after she returned from the front lines at Sinjar.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, The New York Times:

    Within the first couple of hours of the offensive this morning, the Peshmerga were able to get down onto that highway from the east and from the west and essentially cut it off.

    They were surprised at the lack of resistance. And we don't know if there's a surprise in store. One Peshmerga commander was telling me that, through his binoculars, he could look out and see ISIS fighters fleeing on foot.

    My impression of ISIS is that they're incredibly strong against local forces; they're incredibly strong against the Iraqi army. They're not so strong against U.S. airstrikes and a Kurdish force that is being flanked by U.S. special forces.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed American troops are at Sinjar in support of the Kurdish offensive, but are not taking part in direct combat.

  • PETER COOK, Pentagon Spokesman:

    They are advising directly the Iraqi Kurdish forces that are there on site who are engaging this operation, leading this operation. And the U.S. advisers there are working directly with the Peshmerga forces to determine the most effective locations for those airstrikes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Islamic State fighters conquered Sinjar and surrounding areas in the summer of 2014. Hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants from the Yazidi religious sect fled, but many thousands were killed, raped and systematically enslaved. The attack and atrocities moved President Obama to begin a bombing campaign in Iraq that quickly extended into Syria.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Whatever questions one might have about the content about our policy, there should be no doubt about the effort made to consider every single option for ending this crisis.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today, Secretary of State Kerry defended the Syria strategy. He spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace, ahead of renewed multinational talks this Saturday in Vienna. Those will include Syrian President Bashar Assad's principal allies, Russia and Iran. His fate is a major point of division.

  • JOHN KERRY:

    Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad's leadership is simply not a reasonable request. And it is literally, therefore, a nonstarter. I cannot say this afternoon that we are on the threshold of a comprehensive agreement, no. There remains a lot of work to be done.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kerry said each party now has a responsibility — quote — "not to dig in our heels, but to make the bleeding stop."

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