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Iraqi troops within miles of IS-held Mosul

Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press
People watch a burning oil well in Qayyarah, about 30 miles south of Mosul, on Sunday.

Khazer, Iraq — Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed toward Mosul on Sunday, cordoning off eight villages and coming within five miles of the northern city held by the Islamic State group, which staged an attack in a western town hundreds of miles away in an apparent diversionary tactic.

The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, said the area they cordoned off measures around 38 square miles, and that they also secured a “significant stretch” of highway.

The statement said eight car bombs were destroyed in the operation, including three by U.S.-led coalition aircraft, and “dozens” of militants were killed.

The offensive near the town of Bashiqa came nearly a week after Iraq announced the start of the long-awaited Mosul offensive. 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.

Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhi, of Iraq’s special forces said they also took part in the operation, and that Bashiqa was completely encircled.

IS has put up stiff resistance in many areas and has carried out attacks further afield that appear aimed at diverting attention from the Mosul operation.

IS militants stormed into the town of Rutba, in far western Iraq, unleashing three suicide car bombs that were blown up before hitting their targets, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool.

He 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 “is under control.”

The IS-run Aamaq news agency had earlier said militants stormed Rutba from several directions.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed there had been a complex attack in Rutba and said he expects more such diversionary attacks as Iraqi forces close in on Mosul.

The Mosul offensive involves more than 25,000 Iraqi ground forces as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft and advisers.

It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive IS from Iraq’s second-largest city, which is home to more than a million civilians.