ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Kurdish forces backed by air strikes from a U.S-led coalition drove Islamic State militants out of nine villages in northern Iraq on Friday, Kurdish authorities said.
The assault began at dawn on two fronts in the northern province of Kirkuk, & by early afternoon, peshmerga forces had taken an area of over 150 square km (60 square miles), the security council of the autonomous Kurdistan region said in a statement.
At least 40 insurgents were killed in the offensive in the Daquq area, some 175 km (110 miles) north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, the security council said. Of around 1,500 peshmerga who took part, four lost their lives, according to Kurdish fighters who took part in the battle.
Most of the front line between peshmerga & Islamic State has not moved in months.
The Kurds already control much of the territory they claim as their own, & have little incentive to push further into predominantly Arab towns & villages, except where they pose a direct threat to their region.
The Security Council said Friday's operation would "further weaken ISIL's ability to threaten the Kurdistan region", & said the peshmerga had taken control of the strategic Dusera heights & a stretch of the main road from Kirkuk to Baghdad.
Coalition warplanes targeted dozens of Islamic State positions, providing close air support to the peshmerga & destroying a suicide car bomb, the security council said.
The peshmerga have emerged as an significant ally for the coalition, pushing the insurgents back in northern Iraq & effectively expanding their region in the process. That has seen them encroach on areas over which Baghdad claims jurisdiction.
Last summer, the Kurds took full control of the disputed city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army abandoned its bases there, yet western parts of the province such as Hawija remain under Islamic State control.
In the last six months, the peshmerga have cleared more than 530 square km south of Kirkuk in a series of offensives.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles; editing by Andrew Roche)