Islamic State group fighters made a new bid to cut off the Syrian border town of Kobane from neighbouring Turkey Saturday as preparations gathered pace to deploy Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements.
The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq unveiled plans on Friday for up to 200 well-trained peshmerga to join Syrian Kurdish forces defending Kobane in the coming week.
Kurdish news agency Rudaw said the first contingent could head to Kobane as early as Sunday but there was no immediate confirmation of that timetable.
Peshmerga ministry spokesman Halgord Hekmat declined to specify what route the Iraqi Kurdish forces would take, but they are expected to travel overland through Turkey, which has said it will allow them transit.
Since Ankara conceded to US pressure to allow vetted reinforcements into Kobane to prevent IS winning the high-profile battle for the town, the jihadists have made repeated attempts to cut the border before any help can arrive.
Before dawn on Saturday, IS fighters hit Kurdish forces defending the Syrian side of the border crossing with mortar and heavy machinegun fire, an AFP correspondent on the Turkish side reported.
- Advance guard ready -
The heavy mortar fire around the Mursitpinar crossing prompted the Turkish army to order the evacuation of nearby hilltops from where the world's press has been watching the battle for the town.
The Kurdish news agency said an initial peshmerga contingent of 150 was ready to leave for Kobane and would be headed by Sihad Barzani, brother of Iraqi Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani and head of its artillery brigade.
It cited peshmerga officials as saying that an additional 1,000 Iraqi Kurdish fighters would follow.
Rudaw quoted a senior peshmerga officer as saying that the Iraqi Kurdish forces would deploy with heavy weapons, but that undertakings had been given to both Ankara and Washington that they would not be handed over to Syrian Kurdish forces.
"Our enemies in Kobane are using heavy weapons and we should have heavy weapons too," he said.
The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in Kobane has close links with the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Ankara has been adamant that no heavy weaponry should fall into its hands.
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Turkey has tightly controlled the flow of both fighters and weapons to Kobane and has accepted only Iraqi Kurdish or Syrian rebel reinforcements for the town.
Washington delivered light weapons to the town's Kurdish defenders last weekend but was forced to do so by air after Ankara refused deliveries by land.
The Turkish government has been one of the leading supporters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its more than three-year civil war with the Damascus regime and has proposed allowing in 1,000 of its fighters into Kobane.
- Iraq pilgrimage route threatened -
But Syrian Kurdish officials inside the town have expressed reservations about the Turkish plan, saying that any deployment must have their approval and that FSA forces would be better used opening new fronts against IS elsewhere.
Washington has expressed new confidence that Kobane's fall to IS can be averted but has cautioned that in neighbouring Iraqi a major fightback against the jihadists is still months off.
Iraqi government forces have come under renewed attack by IS south of Baghdad, with troops battling on Saturday to secure the route used by hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims headed for the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Eight soldiers were killed in the assault by IS militants which began in the Jurf al-Sakhr area on Friday, officers said.
Pilgrims taking part in Ashura commemorations, which mark the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, are often targeted with bombings during the annual rituals, which take place this month.
But this year's march to Karbala is set to be more dangerous than most, with militants from IS, which has overrun large swathes of Iraq, holding territory along the way.
"Securing Jurf al-Sakhr is securing Karbala and the south completely, as the gateway to the south begins from Jurf al-Sakhr," Karbala governor Aqil al-Turaihi told journalists during a visit to the area.
Securing Jurf al-Sakhr would also better position Iraqi forces to strike at militants in nearby Anbar province, where they have suffered a string of setbacks, prompting warnings that the entire province could fall.