Iraqi forces open second front south of ISIS-held Mosul

While PM Haider al-Abadi had declared victory in Falluja, police sources that government troops had not yet entered several northern districts held by Islamic State (ISIS) and were still clearing southern areas

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Iraqi soldiers sit inside a tent south of Mosul, Iraq, June 15, 2016

Iraqi forces opened a second front on Saturday in preparation for an assault on the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold of Mosul, a day after government troops declared victory over the militants in Falluja.

Elite counter-terrorism forces and two army divisions, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, advanced from a northern refinery town towards an airfield seen as key for a move to retake Mosul, security officials said.

Mosul is Iraq's largest northern city and Islamic State's de facto capital in the country. Government troops cleared two villages and pressed around 20 kilometres along a desert route west of Baiji, the first advance past the town since its recapture in October, the security officials said. Defence Minister Khaled al-Obaidi said the assault marked the launch of operations to push Islamic State out of Qayara, about 115 km north of Baiji, where an airfield could serve as the staging ground for a future offensive on Mosul, a further 60 km north.

Army troops on a separate front pushing west from Makhmour for the past three months have made only halting progress on the opposite side of the Tigris river. "The launch of operations to liberate Qayara will not give the terrorists a chance to catch their breath," Obaidi said on Twitter alongside a picture of Humvee military trucks snaking down a desert road. Iraqi forces entered the centre of Falluja, an hour's drive west of Baghdad, on Friday morning after a four-week operation that sent its tens of thousands of residents fleeing to overwhelmed displacement camps nearby.



Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi had declared victory in Falluja by evening, but police sources said on Saturday that government troops had not yet entered several northern districts held by Islamic State and were still clearing southern areas. Iraqi troops engaged the insurgents on Baghdad Street, the main east-west route through Falluja, firing rockets at their positions and taking sniper fire and mortar rounds.

Counter-terrorism forces took control of Falluja hospital, a nest for the militants who set fire to large parts of it before fleeing, and were clearing the eastern al-Dhubat neighbourhood, a military statement said. "It's a long way from done," said Col Chris Garver, spokesman for the US-led coalition. "There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of clearing all the bad guys out of Falluja and clearing IEDs (improvised explosive devices)".

Live footage broadcast on state television from outside the hospital showed smoke rising from the hospital and elite commandos celebrating with an Iraqi flag. Falluja, a historic bastion of the Sunni insurgency against US forces that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, and the Shi'ite-led governments that followed, was seen as a launchpad for recent Islamic State bombings in the capital.

The International Organisation for Migration said on Saturday more than 81,000 people had been displaced by the fighting in Falluja, which had a population about three times that size before the Islamic State seizure in early 2014.  "Needs: tents, water, supplies," the agency tweeted.

After meeting UN officials about the humanitarian crisis, Prime Minister Abadi ordered emergency measures including setting up mobile clinics, vaccinating children, dispatching water tanks, and supplying electricity within five days.

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