Kurdish Peshmerga fighters backed by Turkish artillery on Sunday claimed major advances against Islamic State extremists outside Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, at one point claiming to have seized full control of the town of Bashiqa.
Peshmerga commanders outside the town told reporters their fighters had entered Bashiqa, which lies about 10 kilometers northeast of IS-occupied Mosul. However, journalists were not allowed entry, and the status of the town had not been confirmed by early Monday.
The latest Iraqi coalition advances occurred as visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter held talks in nearby Irbil with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and key military commanders.
Carter was later quoted as saying “they [Peshmerga] fight extremely well. But because they’re fighting hard, they suffer … casualties.”
After separate talks Saturday in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Carter also said Washington is prepared to provide additional support for the Iraq-led coalition if requested by Iraq and U.S. commanders.
Carter, who met Friday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is seeking to ease rising tensions between Ankara’s Sunni leadership and Baghdad’s Shi’ite government.
The two governments have been feuding over the presence of more than 1,000 Turkish fighters deployed near Bashiqa late last year to train Sunni and Kurdish fighters in the push against Islamic State. That Turkish force provided artillery cover for the Peshmerga advance on Sunday.
WATCH: Civilians Fleeing Mosul
The December 2015 deployment was also widely seen as an attempt by Turkey to ensure that its border with Iraq remains largely controlled by Sunnis and Iraqi Kurds rather than by Iran-backed Shi’ite militia currently fighting alongside Iraqi forces to retake Mosul.
For its part, the Baghdad government has repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of all Turkish forces from the country, a demand which Turkey has so far ignored.
The verbal standoff peaked Saturday, when Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi formally rejected a demand by Turkey to participate in the military push to recapture Mosul.