The Islamic State (IS) group has attacked a town in western Iraq in an apparent attempt to distract Iraqi Kurdish forces pushing toward Mosul.
IS militants stormed into the town of Rutba and unleashed three suicide car bombs, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool.
General Yahya 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 was “under control”.
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, confirmed there had been a complex attack in Rutba and said he expected more such diversionary attacks as Iraqi forces closed in on Mosul.
The offensive is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive IS from Iraq’s second-largest city, which is home to more than one million civilians.
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.
The Kurdish forces, known as Peshmerga, said in a statement they had cordoned off eight villages and were within five kilometres of Mosul.
They said they had also secured a “significant stretch” of highway.
Residents cheer as troops arrive
Iraqi Brigadier Nijem al Jabour, who is head of the operation, said IS had collapsed and their morale was low.
“You can read on the faces of the soldiers and the civilians with us, their morale [is] very high,” he said.
“I think this is the end of ISIS.”
In many areas, IS militants have fled altogether.
Residents at one village, Saffiyra, cheered as the Iraqi troops arrived, with many relieved to escape the brutality of life under IS control.
“We were petrified. We were living in a ghost town that was just scary. You didn’t know, at any time death could be at your doorstep,” she said.
“When we were being fired at … I just tried to protect my children and thank God nothing happened to them.”
— Sahar Abdallah (@sahouraxo) October 23, 2016
Some residents told harrowing stories.
“As soon as security forces advanced, they took families hostage, they took them towards Al Hamam and Mosul,” Hararah village resident Mohammed Awad said.
“Some of us escaped outside the village, and now we are liberated, thank God.
“They took them as human shields so that they could blend in with the families.”
Others, including Kurdish families in the remote village of Suran, have been mourning their dead.
In the past week alone, 16 Peshmerga men have died in the battle.
Farsat Saleh Abdullah, who lost his brother Zahir, said: “The last time we spoke was 25 minutes before it happened”.
“I told him take care. Twice I had to pull him back to stay with me. He said: ‘Brother you look after yourself. I’ll be fine’.”
Nearly 6,000 people have fled their homes around Mosul in the past week, with many walking kilometres to UN-run refugee camps.
Abadi: "the Mosul battle is an Iraqi battle and the ones who are conducting it are Iraqis" https://t.co/3b1Mm5Vj2t
— Lydia Dallett (@Ldallett) October 23, 2016
The UN has been scrambling to provide enough shelter for up to 1.5 million people — more than half of them children.
“We estimate that today, in and around Mosul, there are over 600,000 children that are in dire need of assistance,” UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa director Geert Cappelaere said.
Turkey insists on joining Mosul offensive
Five hundred Turkish troops are training Sunni and Kurdish fighters for the Mosul offensive.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters Turkish tanks and artillery had begun aiding the Kurdish forces in the Bashiqa offensive.
But the presence of the Turkish troops has angered Iraq, which said it never gave them permission to enter the country and has called on them to withdraw.
Turkey has refused, insisting it play a role in retaking Mosul from IS.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has visited both countries in recent days, and was in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, on Sunday.
After meeting with Turkish leaders, Mr Carter announced an “agreement in principle” for Turkey to have a role in the operation, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the US official that Mosul was an “Iraqi battle”.
-ABC, with AP