Archive for October, 2016

Shiite militias join the battle as Iraqis push toward Mosul

October 29, 2016

SHURA, Iraq (AP) — State-sanctioned Shiite militias joined Iraq’s Mosul offensive on Saturday with a pre-dawn assault to the west, where they hope to complete the encirclement of the Islamic State-held city and sever supply lines from neighboring Syria.

Other Iraqi forces aided by U.S.-led airstrikes and heavy artillery meanwhile drove IS from the town of Shura, south of Mosul, where the militants had rounded up civilians to be used as human shields.

The twin thrusts come nearly two weeks into the offensive to retake Iraq’s second largest city, but most of the fighting is still taking place in towns and villages far from its outskirts, and the entire operation is expected to take weeks, if not months.

The involvement of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias has raised concerns that the battle for Mosul, a Sunni-majority city, could aggravate sectarian tensions. Rights groups have accused the militias of abuses against civilians in other Sunni areas retaken from IS, accusations the militia leaders deny.

The umbrella group for the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, says they will not enter Mosul itself and will instead focus on retaking Tal Afar, a town to the west that had a Shiite majority before it fell to IS in 2014.

Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the group, told reporters in Baghdad that the militias had retaken 10 villages since the start of the pre-dawn operation. But there was likely still some fighting underway, and he said forces were removing explosive booby-traps left by IS to slow their advance.

Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, said his group and the other militias had advanced 4 miles (7 kilometers) toward Tal Afar and used anti-tank missiles to destroy three suicide car bombs that were heading toward them.

He said the U.S.-led coalition, which is providing airstrikes and ground support to the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga, is not playing any role in the Shiite militias’ advance. He said Iranian advisers and Iraqi aircraft were helping them.

Many of the militias were originally formed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to battle American forces and Sunni insurgents. They were mobilized again and endorsed by the state when IS swept through northern and central Iraq in 2014.

Iraqi troops approaching Mosul from the south advanced into Shura after a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes and artillery shelling against militant positions inside the town. Commanders said most of the IS fighters withdrew earlier this week with civilians, but that U.S. airstrikes had disrupted the forced march, allowing some civilians to escape.

“After all this shelling, I don’t think we will face much resistance,” Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jabouri said as the advance got underway. “This is easy, because there are no civilians left,” he added.

But hours later, a few families who had hunkered down during the fighting emerged. The government has urged people to remain in their homes, fearing a mass exodus from Mosul, which is still home to more than 1 million people.

By the afternoon, Brig. Gen. Firas Bashar said his forces were clearing explosives and searching for IS fighters in Shura. The sound of artillery still echoed in the distance. In Baghdad, meanwhile, an IS suicide bomber targeting an aid station for Shiite pilgrims killed at least seven people and wounded more than 20, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The Sunni extremist group often target Iraq’s Shiite majority, which it views as apostates deserving of death. The Mosul offensive involves more than 25,000 soldiers, Federal Police, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen and the Shiite militias.

Iraqi forces moving toward the city from several directions have made uneven progress since the offensive began Oct. 17. They are 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the edge of Mosul on the eastern front, where Iraq’s special forces are leading the charge. But progress has been slower in the south, with Iraqi forces still 20 miles (35 kilometers) from the city.

The U.N. human rights office said Friday that IS has rounded up tens of thousands of civilians in and around Mosul to use as human shields, and has massacred more than 200 Iraqis in recent days, mainly former members of the security forces.

The militants have carried out mass killings of perceived opponents in the past and boasted about them in grisly photos and videos circulated online. The group is now believed to be cracking down on anyone who could rise up against it, focusing on men with military training or past links to the security forces.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Irbil, Iraq. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss in Baghdad and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Kirkuk: Kurdish authorities demolish Arab refugee homes

October 27, 2016

Activists and Iraqi human rights organisations have confirmed that largely Arab refugees are being forcibly deported from the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk by Kurdish authorities who are also destroying their homes.

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR) documented several cases of Arab residents and internally displaced people (IDPs) being warned by the Kurdish security services, the Asayish, that they had to depart the area in days.

Not long after, images emerged on social media showing the destruction of refugee shantytowns that used to be inhabited by Arab IDPs fleeing violence in other parts of the country. Reports suggest that this may have been in order to force them to become refugees elsewhere.

These incidences come after significant intelligence failures allowed Daesh militants to breach Kirkuk’s defences last week, killing dozens of security personnel and some civilians in attacks across the city.

Many reports suggested that the Daesh fighters who attacked Kirkuk were Kurds rather than Arabs.

The Kurdish authorities have denied that they are forcibly deporting Arab citizens and IDPs, and have similarly denied that any reprisals are being committed against them in retaliation for Daesh’s assault last week.

Azad Jabari, chief of the security committee in the Kirkuk provincial council, said that these actions were “individual behaviours” of Asayish officers, and did not represent official policy.

However, IOHR has stated that it is “bewildered” by these denials, as it has documented several families informing them that Asayish officers demanded that they hand over their identification documents before forcing them out.

Not only where they rendered homeless, but the lack of identification papers raises the risk that they will be deemed as Daesh infiltrators by the Iraqi authorities and incarcerated or worse.

Hussein Ahmad, 33, was displaced from Tel Afar to Kirkuk. He said that a Kurdish official “visited me in my home accompanied by armed members of the Kurdish security forces, and asked me and my family to leave the city within one day.”

IOHR cited anonymous Kurdish security sources as stating that IDPs were viewed as a security risk in Kurdish-controlled areas.

“The purpose behind the decision to deport them is to transfer them to the camps to better guarantee their rights,” the Kurdish security source said, without elaborating upon how deportation would improve the rights of IDPs or Arab residents of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk has long been disputed, with Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens laying claims to the strategic northern Iraqi city. Although nominally under the control of Baghdad, Kirkuk has been controlled by Kurdish forces since the Iraqi army fled Daesh’s onslaught in 2014, stoking ethnic tensions.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161027-kirkuk-kurdish-authorities-demolish-arab-refugee-homes/.

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Iraqi authorities assume full control of Baghdad airspace

BAGHDAD (BNO NEWS) — The U.S. Air Force has transferred the management of airspace covering the Iraqi capital to national authorities, U.S. officials said on Thursday. Iraqi authorities are now responsible for all domestic airspace.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said the U.S. Air Force transferred the management of the Baghdad/Balad Airspace sector to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) on October 1. “Iraq’s air traffic controllers are now directing the movement of all aircraft within the area, the busiest and most complex airspace in Iraq,” the Embassy said in a statement.

With the transfer of the Baghdad/Balad Airspace sector, Iraqi authorities have assumed full air traffic control responsibility for the country’s airspace for the first time since 2003, when a U.S.-led invasion led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

American and British civilian trainers have prepared the ICAA air traffic controllers in Baghdad and at Iraq’s five other international airports since the opening of the Baghdad Area Control Center in August 2007.

“Many international commercial airlines have already re-established service to Iraq,” the U.S. Embassy said. “Although much work remains to be done in order to improve Iraq’s aviation support and communications infrastructure systems, the ICAA has taken a significant step forward in providing an essential service to the people of Iraq, contributing to the security and stability of the nation, and facilitating trade and travel for a more prosperous future.”

Less than 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, nearly nine years since the U.S.-led war began on March 20, 2003. According to a security agreement between Baghdad and Washington, all U.S. forces will be withdrawn by the end of 2011.

(Copyright 2011 by BNO News B.V. All rights reserved.)

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Source: WireUpdate (BNO News).

Link: http://wireupdate.com/news/iraqi-authorities-assume-full-control-of-baghdad-airspace.html.

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Daesh holds up Iraqi army south of Mosul

October 27, 2016

Daesh fighters kept up on Wednesday their fierce defense of the southern approaches to Mosul, which has held up Iraqi troops there and forced an elite army unit east of the city to put a more rapid advance on hold.

Ten days into what is expected to be the biggest ground offensive in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003, army and federal police units aim to dislodge the militants from villages in the region of Shora, 30 km (20 miles) south of Mosul.

The frontlines in other areas have moved much closer to the edges of the city, the last major stronghold under control of the militants in Iraq, who have held it since 2014.

The elite army unit which moved in from the east has paused its advance as it approaches built-up areas, waiting for the other attacking forces to close the gap.

“As Iraqi forces move closer to Mosul, we see that Daesh resistance is getting stronger,” said Major Chris Parker, a coalition spokesman at the Qayyara airbase south of Mosul that serves as a hub for the campaign. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The combat ahead is likely to get more deadly as 1.5 million residents remain in the city and worst-case UN forecasts see up to a million people being uprooted.

A Reuters correspondent on the southern front met villagers and police who said their relatives had been taken as human shields to cover the fighters’ retreat from the area.

The militants have been using suicide car-bombs extensively to fight off the advancing troops, according to Major General Najm al-Jabouri, the commander of the Mosul operations.

He said his soldiers had destroyed at least 95 car bombs since the battle started on Oct. 17.

Outside the village of Saf al-Tuth, Jabouri directed heavy machine-gun fire at a sparse concrete building on a ridge where his men believed a sniper was hunkered down. Volleys of rockets flew over the ridge with a whoosh and pounded the village itself with loud booms.

UN aid agencies said the fighting has so far forced about 10,600 people to flee.

“Assessments have recorded a significant number of female-headed households, raising concerns around the detention or capture of men and boys,” said a news release from the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande.

Grande told Reuters on Tuesday that a mass exodus could happen, maybe within the next few days.

In the worst case scenario, Grande said, it was also possible that Daesh fighters could resort to “rudimentary chemical weapons” to hold back the impending assault.

The fall of Mosul would mark Islamic State’s effective defeat in Iraq. The city, sometimes described as Iraq’s second largest, is many times bigger than any other Islamic State has ever captured, and it was from its Grand Mosque that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” that also spans parts of Syria.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday an attack on Raqqa, Daesh’s main stronghold in Syria, would start while the battle of Mosul is still unfolding. It was the first official suggestion that U.S.-backed forces in both countries could soon mount simultaneous operations to crush the self-proclaimed caliphate once and for all.

Shi’ite Militias

A senior US official said about 50,000 Iraqi ground troops are taking part in the offensive, including a core force of 30,000 from the government’s armed forces, 10,000 Kurdish fighters and the remaining 10,000 from police and local volunteers.

Iraqi army units are deployed to the south and east, while Kurdish fighters are attacking from the east and the north of the city where 5,000 to 6,000 jihadists are dug in, according to Iraqi military estimates.

Roughly 5,000 US troops are also in Iraq. More than 100 of them are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces advising commanders and helping coalition air power in hitting targets. They are not deployed on frontlines.

Every power in the Middle East has claimed a stake in the fight against Islamic State, making the Mosul operation a strange coalition of nations and groups that are otherwise foes.

The attacking forces are set to increase soon if Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias join the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. The militias’ presence is contentious because of concern that they could alienate mainly Sunni Muslim residents of the area.

The militias, known collectively as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, said last week they would help the army take back Tal Afar, a mainly ethnic Turkmen city west of Mosul on the road linking Iraq to Syria.

Iraqi defense ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool told Al-Sumariya television channel on Wednesday that the PMF would open a new front in Mosul in the coming days.

Hadi al-Amiri, head of Badr, the most powerful group within the PMF, appeared to play down the suggestion that the group would soon join an advance in Tal Afar.

“We will not go to Tal Afar now,” he said. He also said the PMF intended to enlist both Sunnis and Shi’ites from Tal Afar to fight against Daesh.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday Turkey would take measures should the Iranian-backed militias attack Tal Afar.

Turkey and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated central government are at loggerheads over the presence – unauthorized by Baghdad – of Turkish troops at a camp in northern Iraq. Ankara fears that Shi’ite militias, which have been accused of abuses against Sunni civilians elsewhere, will be used in the Mosul offensive.

US President Barack Obama told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on Wednesday that he welcomed continued talks between Iraq and Turkey to seek agreement on Ankara’s participation in the drive against Islamic State, the White House said.

Both leaders affirmed their support for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the White House said.

Iranian influence

In a sign of Iran’s influence, Kurdish political analyst Ranj Talabany tweeted a picture purportedly showing General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the al-Quds force, the extra-territorial arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, touring the frontline held by the Kurds north of Mosul.

The picture was said to be taken in Bashiqa, the region where Turkey is maintaining troops to train local Sunni forces.

Islamic State fighters have tried to divert combat from the main front near Mosul by launching attacks on other cities.

The Iraqi army said on Wednesday it had regained full control of the western town of Rutba on Wednesday, three days after Islamic State attacked it, in an apparent effort to divert Iraqi government troops from the assault on Mosul.

The militants at one point controlled half of the town on a key route to Syria and Jordan in Anbar province, a hotbed for the largely Sunni insurgency against Shi’ite-led government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161027-daesh-holds-up-iraqi-army-south-of-mosul/.

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Islamic State takes Iraqi town of Rutba: Reports

Monday 24 October 2016

The Islamic State (IS) group launched an attack and seized the western Iraqi town of Rutba on Monday as the government tries to retake Mosul, according to an Al Jazeera report.

Seeking to divert attention from the Mosul operation, the militants have tried to hit back with attacks in Rutba, as well as the major city of Kirkuk on Sunday.

They seized the mayor’s office in Rutba, as well as captured and executed at least five people – civilians and policemen, army commanders said.

Rutba’s mayor, Imad al-Dulaimi, said the insurgents attacked during the night and gained entry to the town by coordinating with sleeper cells there. About 30 insurgents skirmished with tribal fighters and security forces.

The top US commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said IS had staged what he called a complex attack in Rutba, which was being dealt with by Iraqi forces. The attack was intended “to try to draw our attention from Mosul”, he said.

The commander of the Anbar operations, Ismail Al-Mahlawi, confirmed that militants executed civilians in Rutba. Arabic media cited him as saying that Iraqi troops were working to recapture the city.

Arabic media also cited a statement by Anbar council chief Sabah Karhoot, who urged Baghdad to send reinforcements to repel the IS offensive.

Around 20,000 people live in Rutba, whcih was previously taken by IS, but recaptured by government forces in May.

In an attempt to repel the offensive against Mosul, Islamic State also set fire to a sulfur plant near the city. Up to 1,000 people were treated in hospital after inhaling toxic fumes.

On Friday, IS sleeper cells in Kirkuk joined up with gunmen infiltrating the northern city in a brazen raid that saw several government buildings attacked.

The attack sparked clashes that lasted three days as security forces imposed a curfew to hunt down attackers holed up across the city.

The provincial governor, Najmeddin Karim, told AFP on Monday that the attack was over and life was returning to normal.

He said more than 74 IS militants were killed in the violence, which also left at least 46 other people dead, mostly members of the security forces.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/islamic-state-takes-iraqi-town-rutba-1275953097.

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IS assault on Iraq’s Kirkuk ends after 24-hour battle

October 22, 2016

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — A massive Islamic State assault on targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk came to an end Saturday after a day and night of heavy clashes, as Iraqi forces launched a new advance southeast of the IS-held city of Mosul.

Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer of the Kirkuk police said all the attackers were killed or blew themselves up. The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest, was quiet Saturday morning.

It was not clear how many militants took part in the assault, which appeared to be aimed at diverting attention from Mosul, around 170 kilometers (100 miles) away, where Iraqi forces are waging a major offensive.

The militants killed 13 workers, including four Iranians, at a power plant north of Kirkuk, and a local TV reporter was killed by a sniper in the city. It was not clear if there were other casualties among civilians or the Kurdish security forces who control Kirkuk.

The Iraqi army’s 9th Division meanwhile launched a new push to retake the town of Hamdaniyah, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the southeast of Mosul. The Joint Military Operation Command said troops were advancing on the town, also known as Bakhdida and Qaraqosh.

Two army officers told The Associated Press that forces were advancing on the town from the north and south, with the support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The operation is part of an offensive launched Monday aimed at liberating Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they have moved closer to the city.

Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Bartella. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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IS attacks Iraq city of Kirkuk, power plant amid Mosul fight

October 21, 2016

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Islamic State militants armed with assault rifles and explosives attacked targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk early Friday in an assault that appeared aimed at diverting Iraqi security forces from a massive offensive against the IS-held city of Mosul.

At least 11 workers, including two Iranians, were killed when IS militants stormed a power plant north of Kirkuk and then blew themselves up. Multiple explosions meanwhile rocked the city, and gun battles were ongoing, said witnesses in Kirkuk, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were concerned for their safety. Much of the fighting was centered on a government compound in the city. They said the streets were largely deserted out of fear of militant snipers.

IS said its fighters targeted the provincial headquarters. The claim was carried by the IS-run Aamaq news agency and could not immediately be verified. Local Kurdish television channel Rudaw aired footage showing black smoke rising over the city as extended bursts of automatic gunfire rang out. It quoted Kirkuk Gov. Najmadin Karim as saying that the militants have not seized any government buildings.

In the power plant attack, which took place in Dibis, a town north of Kirkuk, three IS suicide bombers entered the facility and took 10 workers hostage, said Maj. Ahmed Kader Ali, the Dibis police chief.

The attackers asked to be taken to the Iranians who worked at the plant. One of the workers took them to the Iranians before escaping. The militants then killed the Iranians and the other workers, and detonated their explosive vests when police arrived, Ali said.

Kirkuk is some 170 kilometers (100 miles) from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have been waging a wide-scale offensive since Monday. The oil-rich city is some 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad and southeast of Mosul. It is claimed by both Iraq’s central government and the country’s Kurdish region. Kurdish forces assumed full control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, as Iraq’s army and police crumbled in the face of a lightning advance by IS.

Later Friday, Rudaw TV said all IS militants who took part in the Kirkuk attack had been killed except for two who were holed up in a newly built hotel, which was damaged in the attack and from where they were battling Kurdish forces.

Kirkuk police commander Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer said clashes were still underway, without providing further details. There was no immediate word on casualties among civilians or Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, and the TV report could not immediately be confirmed.

Kemal Kerkuki, a senior commander of Kurdish peshmerga forces west of Kirkuk, said the town where his base is located outside the city also came under attack early on Friday. He said the base is now under control.

He said IS maintains sleeper cells in Kirkuk and the surrounding villages. “We arrested one recently and he confessed,” he said, adding that the attackers may have posed as displaced civilians in order to infiltrate the city.

Kirkuk province has absorbed hundreds of thousands of displaced people from neighboring provinces since IS first overran wide stretches of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, capturing Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition launched a multi-pronged assault this week to retake Mosul and surrounding areas from IS. The operation is the largest undertaken by the Iraqi military since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqi officials said they had advanced as far as the town of Bartella, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Mosul’s outskirts, by Thursday. IS, which still controls a swath of territory stretching across Syria and Iraq, has a history of launching diversionary attacks on distant fronts when it comes under pressure. In April 2015, Iraqi forces announced the liberation of the central city of Tikrit. The following month, IS militants captured the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and the eastern Syrian city of Palmyra. Both cities have since been retaken by Iraqi and Syrian forces.

Schreck reported from Irbil, Iraq. Associated Press writers Susannah George in Irbil, Ahmed Sami and Joseph Krauss in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Iraq forces shell IS near Mosul; group urges airstrike probe

October 24, 2016

BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces shelled Islamic State positions outside Mosul on Monday as fighting to retake the extremist-held city entered its second week. A rights group, meanwhile, urged a probe into a suspected airstrike last week that mistakenly hit a mosque, killing over a dozen civilians.

The purported airstrike in northern Iraq struck the women’s section of a Shiite mosque on Friday in the town of Daquq amid a large Islamic State assault on the nearby city of Kirkuk. That assault was meant to distract the Iraqi forces and their allies from the massive operation around Mosul.

Human Rights Watch said Daquq’s residents believe the attack was an airstrike because of the extent of the destruction and because planes could be heard flying overhead. The New York-based watchdog said at least 13 people were reported killed.

The U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi military, which are waging the offensive to drive IS from the northern city of Mosul, are the only parties known to be flying military aircraft over Iraq. Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the coalition had “definitively determined” that it did not conduct the airstrike that killed civilians in Daquq, and had shared its findings with the Iraqi government, which is carrying out its own investigation.

“The Coalition uses precision munitions and an exhaustive process to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties and collateral damage because the preservation of civilian life is paramount importance to us,” Dorrian said.

Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, confirmed the Iraqi government was investigating the attack. He declined to say whether Iraqi or coalition planes were flying in the area at the time of the explosion.

The strike in Daquq, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Kirkuk, took place as dozens of IS militants attacked several government and police compounds in the city of Kirkuk, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul.

Daquq Mayor Amir Khodakram said on Saturday that the alleged airstrike killed 17 people, mainly women and children, and wounded another 50. He said it wasn’t clear who carried out the airstrike. Over the past week, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been battling IS in a belt of mostly uninhabited towns and villages to the north, east and south of Mosul, pushing to within 9 kilometers (5 ½ miles) of the city.

On Monday, Iraqi special forces began shelling IS positions before dawn near the town of Bartella, said Maj. Gen. Haider al-Obeidi. Bartella, a historically Christian town 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the east of Mosul, was retaken by Iraqi special forces last week.

Shortly afterward, a convoy of special forces advanced toward the village of Tob Zawa, encountering roadside bombs and trading heavy fire with the militants. Loudspeakers on the Humvees blared Iraqi patriotic music as they pushed toward the village.

The campaign to retake Mosul comes after months of planning and involves more than 25,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters and state-sanctioned Shiite militias. It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive IS out of Iraq’s second largest city, which is still home to more than a million people.

The militants captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, when they swept across much of northern and western Iraq. IS has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, and Mosul is its last major urban bastion in Iraq.

Krauss reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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Iraqi forces advance near Mosul as IS attacks western town

October 23, 2016

KHAZER, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed toward Mosul on Sunday, cordoning off eight villages and coming within 9 kilometers (5 ½ miles) of the northern city held by the Islamic State group, which staged an attack in a western town hundreds of miles away in an apparent diversionary tactic.

The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, said the area they cordoned off measures around 100 square kilometers (38 square miles), and that they also secured a “significant stretch” of highway. The statement said eight car bombs were destroyed in the operation, including three by U.S.-led coalition aircraft, and “dozens” of militants were killed.

The offensive near the town of Bashiqa came nearly a week after Iraq announced the start of the long-awaited Mosul offensive. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are approaching from the north, east and south through a belt of mostly abandoned and heavily mined villages scattered across the Ninevah plain.

Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhi, of Iraq’s special forces said they also took part in the operation, and that Bashiqa was completely encircled. IS has put up stiff resistance in many areas and has carried out attacks further afield that appear aimed at diverting attention from the Mosul operation.

IS militants stormed into the town of Rutba, in far western Iraq, unleashing three suicide car bombs that were blown up before hitting their targets, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool.

He said some militants were killed, without giving an exact figure, and declined to say whether any civilians or Iraqi forces were killed. He said the militants did not seize any government buildings and that the situation “is under control.”

The IS-run Aamaq news agency had earlier said militants stormed Rutba from several directions. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed there had been a complex attack in Rutba and said he expects more such diversionary attacks as Iraqi forces close in on Mosul.

IS carried out a large assault on the northern city of Kirkuk on Friday, in which more than 50 militants stormed government compounds and other targets, setting off more than 24 hours of heavy fighting and killing at least 80 people, mainly security forces.

The Mosul offensive involves more than 25,000 Iraqi ground forces as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft and advisers. It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive IS from Iraq’s second-largest city, which is home to more than a million civilians.

Bashiqa is close to a military base of the same name where some 500 Turkish troops are training Sunni and Kurdish fighters for the Mosul offensive. Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, told reporters Sunday that Turkish tanks and artillery had begun aiding the Kurdish forces in the Bashiqa offensive.

The presence of the Turkish troops has angered Iraq, which says it never gave them permission to enter the country and has called on them to withdraw. Turkey has refused, insisting that it play a role in retaking Mosul from IS.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has visited both countries in recent days, and was in the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, on Sunday. After meeting with Turkish leaders, Carter announced an “agreement in principle” for Turkey to have a role in the operation. But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Carter on Saturday that Mosul was an “Iraqi battle.”

The forces taking part in the Mosul offensive include Iraqi troops, the peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters and state-sanctioned Shiite militias. Many fear the operation could heighten tensions between Iraq’s different communities, which are allied against IS but divided over a host of other issues, including the fate of territories near mostly Sunni Mosul that are claimed by the largely autonomous Kurdish region and the central government.

Carter praised the peshmerga, saying they “fight extremely well,” but also acknowledged that they had suffered casualties. Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces, told reporters that 25 of their troops have been killed since the battle to retake Mosul began and a “large number” had been wounded. He said the peshmerga have had good coalition air support, but could use more armored vehicles and roadside bomb detectors. Most of the fallen peshmerga were riding in unarmored vehicles, he said.

The U.N. agency for children meanwhile expressed concern over the more than 4,000 people it says have fled from areas around Mosul since the operation began. UNICEF’s Iraq representative, Peter Hawkins, said that in at least one refugee camp the conditions for children were “very, very poor.” He said UNICEF teams delivered water, sanitation and other supplies expected to last seven days.

They also provided immunizations against polio and measles, which he said had not been available during the more than two years that the people lived under IS rule. UNICEF has plans to assist more than 784,000 people, including up to 500,000 children.

Hawkins says children in and around Mosul are at risk of death or injury from the fighting, as well as sexual violence, kidnapping and recruitment by armed groups.

Krauss reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Lolita C. Baldor in Irbil, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Iraq pushes into town near Mosul after IS assault on Kirkuk

October 22, 2016

BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces pushed into a town near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Saturday after a wave of militant attacks in and around the northern city of Kirkuk set off more than 24 hours of heavy clashes, with ongoing skirmishes in some areas.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter meanwhile arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to meet with Iraqi commanders to discuss the offensive to retake Mosul, which the U.S. is supporting with airstrikes and advisers on the ground.

The Iraqi army said the 9th Division has pushed into the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, and raised the flag over its central government compound, but the troops were likely still facing resistance in and around the town. Similar past announcements have often proved premature.

Two officers from the 9th Division confirmed troops had captured the government compound and raised the flag over it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The town is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul. Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive earlier this week aimed at retaking Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014.

Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they move closer to the city.

IS said it foiled an attack on Hamdaniyah and seized vehicles and weapons left by retreating Shiite militiamen. The claim, carried by the extremist group’s Aamaq news agency, could not be confirmed. An Iraqi television station says one of its reporters was shot dead near Mosul, the second journalist in as many days to be killed while covering the conflict.

Alsumaria TV says cameraman Ali Risan was shot in the chest by a sniper Saturday during a battle in the al-Shura area. Journalist Ahmet Haceroglu of Turkmeneli TV was shot dead by a militant sniper Friday, while covering the IS assault on Kirkuk.

Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area. Islamic State militants launched a rocket and opened fire on an Iraqi convoy near the town on Saturday, and the Iraqi special forces in the convoy returned fire. No one was wounded in the exchange, but it highlighted the dangers Iraqi forces face in areas that have recently been retaken from the militants.

Inside Bartella, a road extending more than 100 meters (yards) was completely demolished, with all the homes on either side reduced to rubble. IS graffiti was scrawled across the walls, and the militants appeared to have renamed streets and neighborhoods after famous fighters during the more than two years they controlled the area.

In Kirkuk, meanwhile, some fighting continued a day after IS launched a massive attack in and around the city, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul. The assault appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from Mosul.

The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest on Friday, was quiet. But witnesses said there were ongoing clashes in the Asra wa Mafkudin neighborhood, where at least two IS fighters were killed Saturday. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.

Col. Redah Sheikh Latif of the Kurdish peshmerga forces in Kirkuk confirmed there were ongoing skirmishes between IS snipers and security forces in the neighborhood, but said the situation was contained. He said there was also fighting in Wara Tappa, a suburb.

On Friday the militants killed 13 workers, including four Iranians, at a power plant north of Kirkuk. It was not clear if there were other casualties among civilians in Kirkuk or the Kurdish security forces who control the city.

Iraq launched a long-awaited operation on Monday aimed at retaking Mosul, its second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

Carter’s visit comes two days after a U.S. service member was killed outside Mosul, underscoring the risk that American troops are taking as they advise Iraqi forces in the fight. The U.S. service member killed earlier this week was the fourth U.S. combat death in Iraq since the U.S. began military operations against the Islamic State in August 2014, and the first since the Mosul operation began. The service member was working with Iraqi special forces northeast of Mosul and serving as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist.

More than 4,800 U.S. troops are in Iraq and there are more than 100 U.S. special operations forces operating with Iraqi units. Hundreds more American troops are playing a support role in staging bases farther from the front lines.

U.S. military officials say that a fire at a sulfur plant in northern Iraq set by Islamic State militants on Thursday is creating a potential breathing hazard for American forces and other troops at a logistical base south of Mosul.

Two officials said that while the fire was set two days ago in Mishraq, the winds shifted earlier Saturday, sending the smoke south toward Qayara West air field, a staging area for the Mosul offensive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

They said troops at the base were wearing protective masks because of the breathing concerns, and estimated it could take two to three days to put the fire out.

Matti reported from Kirkuk. Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Joseph Krauss in Baghdad, Adam Schreck and Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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