Iraqi army's advance to the north gathers steam

They have retaken villages from ISIS, and are close to airfield needed to recapture Mosul

BAGHDAD • Iraq's military advanced through northern villages held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Wednesday, on its way to an airfield that could serve as the staging ground for a future offensive on Mosul, the biggest city held by the militants.

Army and counter-terrorism forces recaptured Telol al-Baj, about 260km north of Baghdad, on the main north-south road on Tuesday, a senior commander participating in the offensive told Reuters.

US-led coalition air strikes have helped repel suicide car bomb attacks, the commander said. Both sides have suffered casualties, but most militants have fled into the desert, he added.

The troops are now around 45km from the airbase at Qayara, less than two weeks after they set out from the refinery town of Baiji, military officials said. Retaking another refinery near Qayara with a production capacity of 16,000 barrels per day could hit ISIS' finances.

The military's recovery this month of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, lent fresh momentum to the campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq's largest northern city and the biggest anywhere within the Islamists' self-proclaimed caliphate spanning large stretches of territory seized in Iraq and Syria. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to retake Mosul this year.

Army troops advancing separately on the eastern side of the Tigris river from Qayara have made slower progress, taking a handful of villages since setting out from Makhmour over three months ago.

Iraqi forces shelled ISIS positions in Haj Ali on Wednesday, in preparation for a ground advance that would allow them to reach the river bank, an army source said. They are expected to link up with the forces from the south near the air base, about 10km west of the river.

Air strikes on ISIS group fighters fleeing after their defeat in Fallujah have destroyed more than 260 vehicles and killed at least 150 Islamists, Iraqi officers said yesterday.

The strikes began late on Tuesday as hundreds of vehicles carrying weapons and ammunition attempted to leave the Islamists' last positions to the west of the city, the Joint Operations Command said.

At least another 60 ISIS vehicles were destroyed later by air strikes conducted by Iraqi and US-led coalition aircraft on a convoy heading north-west of Fallujah.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Iraqi army's advance to the north gathers steam'. Print Edition | Subscribe