ZUMAR, Iraq — The bodies of the six jihadi fighters lay strewn and bloodied in the narrow ditch where they fell.
The men had clearly tried to seek cover from the coalition’s air strikes that have helped turn the war in northern Iraq in recent weeks.
To no avail. “The dogs will come and eat them,” said a young peshmerga fighter standing nearby, staring down at the bodies. Around him, circular craters littered the ground where the air strikes had hit.
In their newly liberated village, Little Koban outside the town of Zumar, peshmerga troops were clearing the debris of war and burying the dead. The bodies of the Islamist State of Iraq & Al-Sham fighters (ISIS) did not get that honour.
“The morale of the enemy is down and we understand that a number of these elements are starting to flee,” said Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish autonomous region’s national security council and son of its president, Masoud Barzani.
The Kurds are finally pushing back through territory seized by ISIS in northern Iraq. Thursday, they fought their way through the villages west of Zumar to relieve Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidi were stranded.
The victory — seizing 430 square kilometres of territory and allowing relief supplies to be brought in by land for the first time for months — is the most visible symbol of the fightback led by the Kurds since the disasters of June and August, when ISIS advanced to within 50 km of their capital, Erbil.
Tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and Turkmen fled. At one stage, 40,000 Yazidis were stranded on the top of the mountain, south-west of Mosul.
A sortie by Kurdish militias from neighbouring Syria managed to bring most of the refugees to safety, but 2,000 families remained trapped.
On a celebratory tour of forward positions, Mr. Barzani said about 100 ISIS fighters were killed during the two-day operation after the allied air strikes.
“This is the biggest military operation so far conducted against [ISIS] and the biggest victory for the peshmerga in this war,” he said.
Most of Zumar’s residents fled during the town’s occupation by ISIS, but the once-deserted main street is buzzing again.
On the mountain, the remaining Yazidis had been protected by a few of their own fighters, supported by peshmerga and the Turkish Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers Party.
As winter sets in and temperatures plummet, relief organizations are swiftly mobilizing to deliver aid.
Yazidi representatives say those still on the mountain want to stay to protect their homes and grazing lands.
But the corridor driven through the villages south-west of Zumar to the mountainside will provide easier access than the continuing helicopter drops.
Saad Babir, a Yazidi doctor who spent weeks there, said supplies were urgently needed, including baby formula.
“There are about 2,000 families and they don’t want to leave the mountain because they say it is their home,” he said. “They need help and relief efforts, they need clothes for the winter. ISIS attacks are continuous from Khana Sor, a town north of mountain.”
Whether the Kurds will be able to press on to the ISIS-held city of Sinjar itself, the Yazidis’ main home, and other towns on the south side of the mountain is another matter. They are well-defended and the approaches are booby-trapped.
Mr. Barzani said he hoped the opening of the relief corridor would be a turning point. The Kurds were still short of heavy weaponry, but they were now receiving support and training on the ground from Britain, the United States and Germany.
“We will continue to free everywhere we can that is called Kurdistan,” he said.
The Daily Telegraph