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Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul faced stiff resistance from the Islamic State (IS) group on Monday as the US-led coalition unleashed an unprecedented wave of air strikes to support the week-old offensive.
Federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters were moving forward in several areas around the IS group’s Iraqi stronghold in the north of the country, but the jihadists were hitting back with shelling, sniper fire, suicide car bombs and booby traps.
The offensive, launched on October 17, aims to retake towns and villages surrounding Mosul before elite troops will breach the city and engage jihadists in street-to-street fighting.
On the eastern side of Mosul, federal troops were battling IS group militants on Monday in Qaraqosh, which used to be the largest Christian town in the country.
Army forces entered the town for the third day running, but armoured convoys deployed around it were met with shelling from inside.
“Qaraqosh was announced liberated on Saturday, but there are still military operations going on to clear pockets of IS group militants inside the city,” said FRANCE 24’s James André, reporting from the city’s outskirts.
“There have been a few car bombs this morning, the situation is tense,” André added. “We have been told by an Iraqi general that there around 20 IS group militants inside the city that they are trying to uproot.”
FRANCE 24’s correspondent said Qaraqosh, once home to some 150,000 inhabitants, had been emptied of its remaining civilian population prior to the attack.
“The civilians have fled to Mosul, because they are not allowed to escape in the other direction,” André said. “As a result, the population of Mosul is on the rise, which will make operations to recapture the city all the more complicated.”
Coalition steps up air campaign
Federal forces also scored gains on the southern front, where they have been making quick progress, taking one village after another as they work their way up the Tigris Valley.
On the northern front, Kurdish peshmerga forces were closing in on the IS-held town of Bashiqa.
Turkey, which has a base in the area, said Sunday it had provided artillery support following a request from the peshmerga.
The presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil is deeply unpopular in Baghdad and the Joint Operations Command on Monday vehemently denied any Turkish participation.
But AFP reporters near Bashiqa said artillery fire coming from the Turkish base had been visible on several occasions since the start of operations a week ago.
Following a weekend visit to Iraq by US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, American officials said the coalition was providing the most air support yet to the operation.
“One week into Mosul operation, all objectives met thus far, and more coalition air strikes than any other 7-day period of war against ISIL (IS),” Brett McGurk, the top US envoy to the 60-nation coalition, wrote on social media.
“There were 32 strikes with 1,776 munitions delivered against Daesh (IS) targets for the week of October 17-October 23,” the spokesman for the coalition, Colonel John Dorrian, told AFP.
He said those strikes had destroyed 136 IS fighting positions, 18 tunnels and 26 car bombs.
Calm returns to Kirkuk
While an increasingly pragmatic IS group has tended in recent months to relinquish some of its positions to avoid taking too many casualties, US officials said the group was mounting a spirited defence of Mosul.
As coalition forces close in on their Mosul bastion, the jihadists have set fire to oil wells, torched tyres inside the city and set up a defence system around it that includes burning oil trenches to blind their enemy’s air and satellite assets.
In the area of Al-Tina, south of Mosul, billows of white smoke from a sulphur plant torched by the IS group were brought rolling in by the wind, mixed at times with black plumes from blazing oil wells.
VIDEO: KURDS DEFIANT AFTER JIHADIST ATTACK ON KIRKUK
Seeking to distract attention, the jihadists have also attempted to hit back with attacks elsewhere in Iraq, including in the remote western town of Rutba on Sunday.
They briefly seized the mayor’s office, captured and executed at least five people — civilians and policemen — and still controlled two neighbourhoods on Monday, army commanders said.
Two days earlier, IS group sleeper cells in Kirkuk joined up with gunmen infiltrating the northern Iraqi city to launch a brazen raid that saw the jihadists attack several government buildings.
The attack sparked clashes that lasted three days as security forces imposed a curfew to hunt down attackers holed up in several buildings across the city.
The provincial governor, Najmeddin Karim, told AFP Monday that the attack was over and life was returning to normal.
He said more than 74 IS group militants were killed during the three-day unrest, which left at least 46 other people dead, most of them members of the security forces.