BAGHDAD (AP) — The Latest on the battle to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (all times local):
Iraqi commanders say their forces have driven Islamic State militants out of a town south of Mosul, but small-scale clashes were still ongoing and the militants left behind explosive booby-traps.
Brig. Gen. Firas Bashar said Saturday that his forces were still clearing explosives and searching for IS fighters in Shura, hours after an assault that began with a wave of airstrikes and heavy artillery, which was still echoing in the distance as he spoke.
The initial advance into the village was blocked by small arms fire and IS snipers. Twin columns of Federal Police and Iraqi army Humvees ground to a halt as artillery shelled militant positions and attack helicopters hovered overhead.
At least half a dozen families remained in the town through the offensive and emerged when the fighting died down.
Iraq’s state-sanctioned Shiite militias say they have advanced against the Islamic State group following a pre-dawn assault that marked their entry into the operation to retake the militant-held city of Mosul.
Spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi told a press conference that the militias had taken back 10 villages since the start of the operation early Saturday, which is aimed at completing the encirclement of Mosul and cutting it off from IS-held territory in Syria.
There was likely still fighting underway in the villages, and he says the forces are working to remove explosives planted by the militants to slow their advance.
The involvement of the Shiite militias in the operation to retake Sunni-majority Mosul has raised concerns the offensive could aggravate Iraq’s sectarian tensions. The militias have said they will not enter the city itself.
Iraqi officials say a suicide bomber targeting Shiite pilgrims has killed seven people and wounded more than 20 in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
They say the bomber struck an aid station set up for pilgrims in a western neighborhood on Saturday, and that the toll was expected to rise. No one immediately claimed the attack, but the Islamic State group has repeatedly targeted Iraq’s Shiite majority and security forces.
Iraq is currently waging a major offensive to drive IS from the northern city of Mosul, the extremist group’s last urban stronghold in the country.
The police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
— Joseph Krauss in Baghdad
Iraqi forces have pushed into an Islamic State-held town south of Mosul after a wave of airstrikes and heavy artillery.
Iraqi commanders said Saturday that most of the IS fighters fled the town of Shura earlier this week, using civilians as human shields, but that U.S. airstrikes disrupted the forced march, allowing some civilians to escape.
Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jabouri said “after all this shelling, I don’t think we will face much resistance.” He added that “this is easy, because there are no civilians left.”
Lt. Col. Hussein Nazim of the Federal Police said some civilians might still be in the city, but that the use of heavy artillery and airstrikes was a standard tactic.
Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake militant-held Mosul last week. Forces coming up from the south are still 20 miles (35 kilometers) from the city, but fighting units on other fronts are closer
State-sanctioned Shiite militias have launched an attack on the Islamic State group west of the Iraqi city of Mosul but reiterated that they would not enter the Sunni majority city.
Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, said they launched an offensive Saturday along with other militias toward the town of Tel Afar, which had a Shiite majority before it fell to IS in 2014. He says Iranian forces are advising the fighters and Iraqi aircraft are providing airstrikes.
Iraq launched a massive operation to retake militant-held Mosul, its second largest city, last week. The involvement of the Shiite militias has raised concerns the battle could aggravate sectarian divisions.
Al-Husseini says the militias will focus on Tel Afar and on securing the western border with Syria.
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