The main problems with press coverage of the fight with Daesh (ISIS) in the north of Iraq are the absence of decent maps (the BBC one is just plain wrong) and the western press’s general lack of understanding of the strategic and geographical issues in play (with some notable exceptions – see further reading below). Here’s a very basic outline to help explain.
Where is Kurdistan? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous region of northern Iraq. It has its own parliament, army (Peshmerga) and domestic security force (Asayish). Then there are the areas outside of their borders where the population are mostly Kurds, but they do not come under KRG administration. These are often known as the Disputed Territories.
Why the dispute? This strip of land contains many billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, which both the central Iraqi government and the KRG would like the profits of. For the KRG however, it runs deeper – control of Mosul, Kirkuk and the areas around them would allow the KRG to look after their fellow Kurds.
Why do Daesh want this area? Primarily oil. Selling oil on the black market brings in millions of dollars a day, allowing them to recruit, fight and function like a state army.
But why Sinjar in particular? Sinjar, or as the Kurds call it, Shingar, is actually a region as well as a town. West of Mosul, it helps Daesh to shore up the link between Syria and areas of more solid Sunni Arab support. It also gives them access to Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul.
Shingar is also the homeland of the Yezidis, who are a religious minority persecuted by Daesh for their beliefs. When Shingar fell to Daesh, many Yezidis fled to Syria or Erbil, but geography forced some of them up Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for many days. This is inhospitable terrain, especially in the height of summer, and those trapped on the mountain suffer greatly.
Military Strategy In the battle for Shingar, there are several strategically important towns; Zumar (Zummar), Sinjar (Sincar, Shingar) and Rabi’a (Rabia). Whoever controls these, controls access to the whole area.
Fierce fighting continues in Rabi’a and Zumar and control changes regularly. The Peshmerga sustained significant casualties in the battles for these towns but today have regained control of Rabi’a. It is expected that they will progress to Shingar soon.
On a lighter note, Zagros TV just showed Peshmerga delightedly holding up fake beards they had taken off Daesh fighters killed in the battle for Rabi’a.
Further references This New York Times interactive graphic is about the best and most accurate map I’ve come across, and although it’s from 2009, descriptions of the ethnic, strategic and political issues are pretty spot on. This Al Jazeera video gives you an impression of the battle around Zumar. This Washington Post series of graphics illustrates things from the perspective of US air strikes.