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SINJAR, Iraq – Kurdish forces in recent weeks have retaken parts of the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar, whose Yazidi population was driven out in a humanitarian disaster last year that triggered U.S. intervention. But sniping among Kurdish factions makes the hold on the town seem shaky and is threatening the wider fight against Islamic state militants.
Overlooking the strategic northern Iraq town of Sinjar, peshmerga fighters representing the recognized authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan fume against what they see as the recklessness of their supposed allies in militias drawn from neighboring Syria and Turkey.
Within the bomb-scarred warrens of the town below, foot soldiers in those militias complain that the much more heavily armed peshmerga have done too little during the fight against Islamic State fighters holed up within easy range of a sniper's bullet.
The immediate issue is ownership of Sinjar, the town that once was home to many of Iraq's Yazidi religious minority. Tens of thousands fled to the nearby mountains, creating a humanitarian disaster, when IS militants seized the town in August and unleashed a wave of terror involving killings, imposed conversions and forced marriage.
But there is a wider concern as well: The Kurds, in their various forces, have provided the most effective ground resistance to date against the jihadis who have taken large swaths of Iraq and Syria — and so the outside world has a stake in their ability to continue that struggle.
Since December, the peshmerga and their Kurdish comrades in arms have regained the mountains in this area thanks in part to increased weapons supplies and airstrikes from coalition warplanes.
But the fight has bogged down around Sinjar itself, inflaming intra-Kurdish tensions just as their fight was gaining momentum.
Today's divisions reflect decades of conflict between peshmerga supporters of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) of Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey. The two groups were opponents in 1990s civil warfare, which ended in an accord that allowed PKK fighters to remain on the KDP's Iraqi turf. The U.S. State Department regards the PKK as a terrorist organization because of its history of violence in Turkey.
The commander of peshmerga forces around Sinjar, Brig. Gen. Salam Warti, described the PKK and other militias as loose cannons unwilling to stick to an agreed strategic plan. He said they rushed into Sinjar too quickly last week, when the Kurdish regional government announced that its forces had wrested nearly a third of the town from IS forces. That boast proved short-lived as peshmerga troops retreated to the hills, and other Kurdish soldiers took refuge in the urban outskirts.
"We had planned to take the surrounding areas first and then take the town," Warti told the Associated Press. "But they (allied militias) decided to show off and take a section of the town, and now we're paying for it with many casualties. Militarily, it was a bad move."
Warti said allied fighters' decision to maintain positions within the town was making it more difficult for coalition aircraft to distinguish friend from foe.
But a journey through Sinjar itself reveals another perspective on the fight. This town of ancient, narrow streets lined with modest stone homes — many damaged or destroyed from weeks of guerrilla fighting — now houses rival tiny barracks of IS fighters in the center and the peshmerga's allies on the outskirts. The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), the Syria-based People's Protection Units better known as the YPG, and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance. The militias say they often arm themselves by taking weapons from slain enemies.
One PKK fighter, 35-year-old Shakho Shakh, invited a visitor to peek through narrow holes in a wall of sandbags in a forward observation post. Beyond, a pile of concrete rubble marked what Shakh called the front line for IS fighters. He said PKK forces had held that position last week, when it was still a building.
"A suicide bomber destroyed the house and killed one of us," he said.
The PKK and other anti-IS forces in this part of Old Sinjar transport soldiers between a rear headquarters and front-line posts using a home-armored Nissan Patrol that, weighed down with extra metal plating, struggles to navigate the town's rain-soaked dirt roads. Fighters here say they have grown tired of waiting for the peshmerga to reinforce them, and accuse them of breaking promises.
"Peshmerga said: We will come on the 5th (of January), then 10th, and 20th, and we will liberate Sinjar. And it never happened," said Marwan Shingali, a town native from the Sinjar Resistance. "You go to the front line. You will only find our comrades fighting."
On a peshmerga-held hill overlooking the town, some express confusion about exactly who their allies are.
"We can't identify them. We just call all of them PKK," said Shalaw Hassan Abdullah, 26, a peshmerga soldier. "They all look the same. I don't know who is who."
From Abdullah's position behind a wall of sandbags, fighters fired occasional rounds at suspected IS positions in the town below Thursday. Contrary to the primitive weaponry used by fighters with the other Kurdish factions, the peshmerga front line is equipped with heavy machine guns and mortars. The night before featured intense fighting capped by airstrikes.
As Abdullah spoke, another peshmerga fighter behind him fired a rocket that passed overhead, bound for the town. Men grabbed their binoculars to see the strike, but it overshot the target.
"Pull it back a little or you'll hit Mosul," joked one fighter, referring to the Islamic State-held city 125 kilometers (75 miles) to the east. A second rocket salvo soon produced plumes of smoke rising from the town center.
Kurds drawn from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran all seek the establishment of an independent Kurdistan against the desires of all four existing nations. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is the closest the Kurds have come to reaching their goal.
But the PKK and YPG remain suspicious of Barzani's intentions, particularly because of his peshmerga forces' efforts in recent years to dig defensive trenches all along the Iraqi borders with Syria and Turkey.
Allied fighters express a determination not to allow the peshmerga to exert sole control once the Islamic State is forced out of Sinjar.
"We will not accept any one group raising its flag in Sinjar. It is for all Kurds," said PKK fighter Farhad Ali, a hairdresser from northeast Syria who joined the anti-IS fight in August.
But atop the hill, Abdullah described the other fighters as outsiders with no credible claim.
"They are new here," he said.