Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a fresh attack on the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) forces early on Sunday as part of a campaign to capture Mosul, the militants’ de facto capital in Iraq, Kurdish officials said.
The advance began after heavy shelling and air strikes by a United States-led coalition against ISIS forces, a Reuters correspondent reported from Wardak, 30 km (19 miles) southeast of Mosul.
The militants fought back, firing mortars at the advancing troops and detonating at least two car bombs. Clouds of black smoke rose from the area and dozens of civilians fled in the direction of the Peshmerga lines, brandishing white flags.
A Peshmerga commander said 11 villages had been taken from the ultra-hardline Sunni militants as the troops headed to Gwer, the target of the operation, 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Mosul.
Repairing the bridge that the militants destroyed in Gwer would allow the Peshmerga to open a new front around Mosul. The bridge crosses the Grand Zab river that flows into the Tigris.
The Iraqi army and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish self-rule region are gradually taking up positions around Mosul, 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad.
It was from Mosul’s Grand Mosque in 2014 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning regions of Iraq and Syria.
Mosul is the largest urban center under the militants’ control, and had a pre-war population of nearly 2 million.
Its fall would mark the effective defeat of ISIS in Iraq, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has said he aims to retake the city this year.
The Iraqi army is trying to advance from the south. In July it captured the Qayyara airfield, 60 km (35 miles) south of Mosul, which will serve as the main staging post for the expected offensive.
The Peshmerga operation on Sunday “is one of many shaping operations that will also increase pressure on ISIL in and around Mosul,” said the Kurdistan Regional Security Council in a statement, using another acronym to refer to IS.
The preparation for the offensive on Mosul “is approaching the final phase,” Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the militant group, said in Baghdad on Thursday.
He said the planning included humanitarian considerations.
Once the fighting intensifies around Mosul, up to one million people could be driven from their homes in northern Iraq, posing “a massive humanitarian problem”, the International Committee of the Red Cross said last month.More than 3.4 million people have already been forced by conflict to leave their homes across Iraq, taking refuge in areas under control of the government or in the Kurdish region.