Iraqi army tanks gather after the liberation of a village
from Islamic State militants, south of Mosul.Reuters
The Iraqi army has stormed Qaraqosh, a Christian town under control of Islamic State since 2014, as part of operations to clear the entrances to Mosul, the militants' last major city stronghold in Iraq.
The advance took place as US Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived on a visit to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and assess the campaign that started on Monday with air and ground support from the USled coalition.
A military statement said Iraqi army units entered the centre of Qaraqosh, about 20 kms (13 miles) southeast of Mosul, and were carrying out mop-up operations across the town which was emptied of its population in 2014, when Islamic State swept through the region.
Iraqi special units earlier this week captured Bartella, a Christian village north of Qaraqosh. The offensive on Mosul is expected to become the biggest battle fought in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Islamic State also controls parts of Syria.
The army is also trying to advance from the south and the east while Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are holding fronts in the east and north.
A Reuters photographer on the southern front saw plumes of smoke rising on Friday from a sulphur factory near that was under the control of Islamic State near the town of Qayyara, filling the air with toxic gasses. It was not clear if the militants set it on fire to cover their retreat or if it was damaged during the fighting.
The army's media office said about 50 villages had been taken from the militants since Monday in operations to prepare the main thrust into the city of Mosul itself, where 5,000 to 6,000 are dug in, according to Iraqi military estimates.
"It's the beginning of the campaign. We do feel positively about how things have started off, particularly with the complicated nature of this operation," said a US official who briefed reporters ahead of Carter's trip to Baghdad.Report on Liberation of Christian in Mosul continues here