Qayyarah, Oct 30: Iraqi forces said today that they recaptured a series of villages surrounding jihadist-held Mosul as the operation to retake the city from the Islamic State group neared its third week.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been advancing on Mosul from the north, east and south after the launch on October 17 of a vast offensive to retake IS's last stronghold in the country.
After standing largely on the sidelines in the first days of the assault, forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi -- a paramilitary umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias -- began a push yesterday towards the west of Mosul.
The ultimate aim is the recapture of Tal Afar, a town west of the city, and the severing of jihadist supply lines between Mosul and Syria. In a series of statements today, the Hashed's media office announced it had retaken at least four villages southwest of Mosul.
Al-Imraini, one of the recaptured villages, is 45 kilometres (27 miles) from Tal Afar, according to the media office. The drive toward Tal Afar could bring the fighting perilously close to the ancient city of Hatra, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the ruins of Nimrud -- two archaeological sites that have previously been vandalised by IS.
Forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region also announced gains today, saying that they had recaptured six villages north and east of Mosul. Kurdish units are effectively operating on the opposite side of Mosul from the Shiite militiamen, with whom relations are tense. The involvement of Shiite militias in the Mosul operation has been a source of contention, though the Hashed's top commanders insist they do not plan to enter the largely Sunni city.
Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed their involvement, as has Turkey which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad for the forces to be withdrawn. Relations between the Hashed and the US-led coalition fighting IS are also tense, but the paramilitaries enjoy widespread support among members of Iraq's Shiite majority.
The Hashed has been a key force in Iraq's campaign to retake areas seized by IS in mid-2014, when the jihadists took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared a cross-border "caliphate". But the paramilitaries have been repeatedly accused of human rights violations during the war against IS, including summary killings, kidnappings and destruction of property.
Tal Afar was a Shiite-majority town of mostly ethnic Turkmens before the Sunni extremists of IS overran it in 2014, and its recapture is a main goal of Shiite militia forces.