Iraqi forces push into town near Mosul after IS group assault on Kirkuk

Iraqi Forces

Iraqi Forces

Iraqi forces pushed into a town near the Islamic State group-held city of Mosul Saturday after a wave of militant attacks in and around the northern city of Kirkuk set off more than 24 hours of heavy clashes.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter meanwhile arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to meet with Iraqi commanders to discuss the offensive to retake Mosul, which the US is supporting with airstrikes and advisers on the ground.

The Iraqi army said the 9th Division has pushed into the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, and raised the flag over its central government compound, but the troops were likely still facing resistance in and around the town. Similar past announcements have often proved premature.

The town is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul. Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive earlier this week aimed at retaking Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they move closer to the city.

Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometres (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area.

So-called Islamic State militants launched a rocket and opened fire on an Iraqi convoy near the town on Saturday, and the Iraqi special forces in the convoy returned fire. No one was wounded in the exchange, but it highlighted the dangers Iraqi forces face in areas that have recently been retaken from the militants.

IS group graffiti

Inside Bartella, a road extending more than 100 meters (yards) was completely demolished, with all the homes on either side reduced to rubble. IS group graffiti was scrawled on the walls, and the militants appeared to have renamed streets and neighborhoods after famous fighters during the more than two years they controlled the area.

In Kirkuk, meanwhile, some fighting continued a day after IS group launched a massive attack in and around the city, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul. The assault appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from Mosul.

The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest on Friday, was quiet. But witnesses said there were ongoing clashes in the Asra wa Mafkudin neighborhood, where at least two IS militant fighters were killed Saturday. They spoke on condition of anonymity on security concerns.

Col. Redah Sheikh Latif of the Kurdish peshmerga forces in Kirkuk confirmed there were ongoing skirmishes between IS group snipers and security forces in the neighborhood, but said the situation was contained. He said there was also some ongoing fighting in the suburb of Wara Tappa.

On Friday the militants killed 13 workers, including four Iranians, at a power plant north of Kirkuk, and a local TV reporter was killed by a sniper in the city. It was not clear if there were other casualties among civilians or the Kurdish security forces who control Kirkuk.

Iraq launched a long-awaited operation on Monday aimed at retaking Mosul, its second largest city, which fell to IS group in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 US-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

Combat deaths and toxic smoke

Carter’s visit comes two days after a US service member was killed outside Mosul, underscoring the risk that American troops are taking as they advise Iraqi forces in the fight.

The US service member killed earlier this week was the fourth US combat death in Iraq since the US began military operations against the IS group in August 2014, and the first since the Mosul operation began. The service member was working with Iraqi special forces northeast of Mosul and serving as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist.

More than 4,800 US troops are in Iraq and there are more than 100 US special operations forces operating with Iraqi units. Hundreds more American troops are playing a support role in staging bases farther from the front lines.

US military officials say that a fire at a sulfur plant in northern Iraq started by IS group militants on Thursday is creating a potential health hazard for American forces and other troops at a logistical base south of Mosul.

Two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the fire was started two days ago in Mishraq, the winds shifted earlier Saturday, sending the smoke south toward Qayara West air field, a staging area for the Mosul offensive.

They said troops at the base were wearing protective masks because of the breathing concerns, and estimated it could take two to three days to put the fire out.

Turkey’s role

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Saturday said Ankara will continue to have a presence in Iraq.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter added weight to Yildrim’s comments on Friday saying that the two countries had reached an agreement in principle that could eventually allow a Turkish role in the campaign to retake the city from IS group.

Officials, however, said the details on any Turkish participation still needed to be worked out.