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Kurdish troops, backed by U.S. aircraft, recapture key town on Syrian border

Kurdish militia have captured a strategic border town on the route between the Islamic State-held cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq as part of a three-front offensive launched to retake territory lost to the group over the summer, Kurdish officials said Tuesday.

The offensive, which was described as “limited” by a Kurdish security official, was supported by the heaviest anti-Islamic State coalition airstrikes in a week, with warplanes flown by the United States and its allies striking at least 20 targets -- including the first strikes by British planes since Parliament approved military action in Iraq.

Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, began attacks early Tuesday morning on three fronts – at the border with Syria at the town of Rabia; at Zummar, a city outside of Mosul, and outside of Kirkuk, a city that the peshmerga occupied in June when Iraqi army troops withdrew in the face of the Islamic State’s advance.

Kurdish officials and media reports said that the offensive at Rabia and Zummar, both of which fell to the Islamic State in early August, were going well. There were fewer clear reports about the fighting outside Kirkuk.

The Kurdish offensive marks a resurgence of the peshmerga militia after its lightly armed forces proved no match in August for the Islamic State’s heavy weapons, which the insurgent group had captured when it overran Iraqi military positions in June. In the months since, the peshmerga, which is made up of two separate groups, each loyal to one of the two main Kurdish political parties, has been reorganized to improve coordination and training and has begun to receive heavier and more advanced weaponry from Western countries.

But whether the quick results at Rabia were a sign of an improved peshmerga was uncertain. Reports indicate that the Islamic State had moved a large numbers of fighters out of the area to reinforce its units fighting in Syria, according to a Kurdish military official who does not have permission to speak to the news media.

“This is not a major offensive to retake Mosul,” said the official, who reports to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in Irbil. He said Rabia was a target “to cut the flow of weapons and men between Mosul and Raqqa” and to put pressure on Islamic State forces holding another northern Iraqi city, Sinjar.

The fighting near Kirkuk was undertaken by peshmerga troops loyal to former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is based in Sulaimaniya. It was a sign of continuing coordination issues that the official said he was not well informed on the progress there.

“We have improved our communication with Talabani’s men through a central operations center, and this attack was done in coordination with them, but I don’t have immediate progress reports as that information is processed through their commanders,” the official said. He described efforts to build one centralized peshmerga command as “in progress.”

According to U.S. Central Command, airstrikes conducted on the Syrian side of the border in the Sinjar region, a reference that would encompass Rabia, hit 12 targets. They included “one ISIL artillery piece, one ISIL tank, three ISIL armed vehicles, two ISIL facilities, an ISIL observation post” and “four ISIL fighting positions,” the Central Command said. ISIL is the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.

In the same area on the Iraqi side of the border, Central Command reported aircraft had “destroyed one ISIL armored vehicle, two ISIL transport vehicles, and four ISIL armed vehicles.” Another armed vehicle was damaged.

The British Defense Ministry reported that two Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft engaged Islamic State forces firing at Kurdish troops in northwest Iraq, hitting what it called a “heavy-weapons position” and an armed pickup truck. “An initial assessment indicates that both precision strikes were successful,” the British statement said.

The U.S. statement also said that two strikes were conducted in the vicinity of Zummar outside the Mosul Dam.

Kurdish television stations described the assault on Rabia as a success and broadcast live images of what it said were peshmerga forces taking control of the town.

The use of a revitalized peshmerga is a key part of the American strategy to degrade the military capacity of the Islamic State. In early September, the peshmerga recaptured a string of small Christian villages outside of the Islamic State-held town of Bartella near Irbil and pushed Islamic State forces back near Kalak, 20 miles from Irbil.