Iraq Kurds take back land from IS jihadists

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters clear the road after they reportedly captured several villages from Islamic State group jihadists on the outskirts of Kirkuk on September 30, 2015 (AFP Photo/Marwan Ibrahim) (AFP)

Kirkuk (Iraq) (AFP) - A ground offensive led by 3,500 Iraqi Kurdish forces Wednesday recaptured several villages west of the city of Kirkuk from the Islamic State group, officials said.

Backed by warplanes from the US-led coalition, the fourth operation of its kind in the Kirkuk area left at least 16 Kurdish peshmerga forces and dozens of IS fighters dead.

"The offensive, launched from three fronts west of Kirkuk, included approximately 3,500 peshmerga," the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a statement.

It said the offensive, which began at dawn, had cleared an area of 140 square kilometres (56 square miles).

The KRSC said coalition air strikes targeted 30 IS positions during the offensive, which peshmerga commanders said had achieved its goals.

The operation was aimed at tightening the noose on Hawija, an IS stronghold around 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad and further protecting the autonomous Kurdish region from jihadist attacks.

A peshmerga major general said 16 Kurdish troops were killed during the operation and at least 32 wounded.

"We lost those peshmerga because of IEDs," or improvised explosive devices the IS usually plants to slow enemy progress, he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We did not lose anybody in clashes because Daesh (an Arab acronym for IS) was running away from us as we advanced," he said.

The KRSC statement said that at least 40 IS members were killed during the operation. It was not immediately possible to corroborate that figure, however.

Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, the commander of peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, said 12 villages were retaken during the operation.

The US military said in a statement that "coalition aircraft conducted more than 50 airstrikes in support of this operation".

"Airstrikes against Daesh positions began several days before the ground operation in order to set favorable conditions for the Peshmerga by degrading Daesh's ability to fight," it said.

"In the last four weeks, the Peshmerga have conducted three successful offensive operations against Daesh terrorists, returning more than 400 square kilometres (155 square miles) of territory to government control," it also said.

Those areas are not part of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq but have long been claimed by the Kurds.

When IS launched its major offensive across several Iraqi provinces in mid-2014, Kurdish forces moved into the vacuum left by retreating federal forces and expanded the territory under Kurdish control by an estimated 40 percent.