Kurds, Islamic State Clash Near Kurdish Regional Capital

(Reuters) -

Kurdish forces attacked Islamic State fighters near the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil in northern Iraq on Wednesday in a change of tactics supported by the Iraqi central government to try to break the Islamists’ momentum.

The attack 25 miles southwest of Arbil came after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds on Sunday with a rapid advance through three towns, prompting Iraq’s prime minister to order his air force for the first time to back the Kurdish forces.

“We have changed our tactics from being defensive to being offensive. Now we are clashing with the Islamic State in Makhmur,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of the ministry in charge of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

The location of the clashes puts the Islamic State fighters closer than they have ever been to the Kurdish semi-autonomous region since they swept through northern Iraq almost unopposed in June.

Shortly after that lightning advance, thousands of U.S. – trained Iraqi soldiers fled. Kurdish fighters, who boast of their battles against Saddam Hussein’s forces, stepped in as did Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias.

The Islamic State poses the biggest threat to Iraq’s security since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The group, which believes Shi’ites are infidels who deserve to be killed, has won the support of some Sunnis who don’t agree with their ideology but share a fierce determination to topple Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, 60 people were killed by an Iraqi government air strike on a Sharia court set up by Islamic State militants in a juvenile prison in Mosul, the office of Maliki’s military spokesman said.

The Islamic State judge who ran the court, which routinely orders beheadings, was among those killed in the northern Iraqi city, the spokesman said.

Hospital officials and witnesses said earlier the strike killed 50 people in a prison set up by the Islamic State, making no mention of the court.

In Baghdad, car bombs exploded in crowded markets in several Shi’ite districts, killing 47 people, police said.

The Islamic State has declared a ‘caliphate’ in swathes of Iraq and Syria that it controls and threatens to march on Baghdad. Islamic State fighters and their Sunni militant and tribal allies also hold parts of western Iraq.