By Saif Hameed and Babak Dehghanpisheh
ERBIL (Reuters) – Kurdish fighters said they had taken the town of Bashiqa near Mosul from Islamic State on Sunday as coalition forces pressed their offensive against the jihadists’ last stronghold in Iraq.
Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdish region, told U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Kurds had succeeded in liberating Bashiqa from Islamic State.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters told reporters at the scene that they had entered Bashiqa. Journalists were not being allowed into the town, which lies 12 km (8 miles) northeast of Mosul.
The offensive to take Mosul, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition, is expected to become the biggest battle in the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The capture of Bashiqa, if confirmed, would mark the removal of one more obstacle on the road to the northern city.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said his own information – while limited – “suggests that President Barzani is right, that there has been a considerable success at Bashiqa”.
But he added: “I have not received a report that says every house has been cleared, every Daesh (Islamic State fighter) has been killed and every IED (roadside bomb) has been removed.”
Townsend told journalists that Bashiqa was one of the villages outside Mosul that Islamic State had emptied of civilians and fortified over the past two years.
Reuters television footage from Nawran, a town near Bashiqa, showed Kurdish fighters using a heavy mortar, a machine gun and small arms as smoke rose over the area.
As Peshmerga forces moved though the area, armoured vehicles moved along a road and a helicopter flew overhead.
The Peshmerga are also using tanks, rocket launchers and snipers. A Reuters photographer saw the fighters destroy at least three suicide car bombs dispatched against their forces.
Turkish artillery is supporting the Peshmerga, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was quoted as saying by CNN Turk and other media outlets.
“The Peshmerga have mobilised to cleanse the Bashiqa region from Daesh. They asked for help from our soldiers at the Bashiqa base. So we are helping the tanks with our artillery there,” CNN Turk quoted him as saying.
Turkey has troops at a base in the area where it has been helping to train Iraqi Kurdish fighters. The artillery support could further strain relations between Ankara and the Baghdad central government, coming a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declined an offer from Turkey to take part in the Mosul campaign.
The offensive to capture Mosul started on Monday. Coalition forces have advanced to within 5 km (3 miles) of the city at the closest point, the interior minister of the Kurdish regional government has said.
An Iraqi force of about 30,000, joined by U.S. special forces and under American, French and British air cover, is ready to push into Mosul after recapturing Falluja and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and seizing the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit in central Iraq.
Islamic State have staged attacks apparently aimed at distracting the advancing forces. They hit the city of Kirkuk on Friday and on Sunday they attacked Rutba, a town 360 km (225 miles) west of Baghdad, where they killed at least seven policemen, according to a police source.
The mayor, Imad al-Dulaimi, said the insurgents attacked during the night and gained entry to the town by coordinating with sleeper cells there. About 30 insurgents skirmished with tribal fighters and security forces before vanishing.
Townsend said Islamic State had staged what he called a complex attack in Rutba, which was being dealt with by Iraqi forces. The attack was intended “to try to draw our attention from Mosul”, he said.
In an attempt to repel the offensive against Mosul, Islamic State also set fire to a sulphur plant near the city. Up to 1,000 people were treated in hospital after inhaling toxic fumes.
Coalition officials have said the offensive is going well, but that it will take a long time to recapture Mosul, which has a civilian population of 1.5 million.
Between 4,000 and 8,000 Islamic State fighters have rigged the city with explosives, built oil-filled moats, dug tunnels, and trenches and are feared to be ready to use civilians as human shields.
Carter sounded optimistic about the campaign to take Mosul during a trip to Erbil as he praised the Kurdish region’s Peshmerga fighters.
“I’m here to commend you and your forces. I’m encouraged by what I see,” Carter told Barzani during talks.
Peshmerga spokesman Brigadier General Halgord Hekmet told reporters that 25 Kurdish forces had been killed so far.
“There (are) a lot of wounded,” Hekmet said, speaking through a translator. He spoke positively about air support his forces were receiving from the coalition but said more military assistance was needed, starting with armoured vehicles and equipment to detect roadside bombs.
“Most of our Peshmerga got killed because they were riding in regular cars, not armoured,” Hekmet said.
During the meeting, Barzani said the Mosul operation had started successfully and cited good progress over the past three days. He thanked the United States and the coalition for their support.
In Rome, Pope Francis said he was close to the Iraqi people and in particular to the citizens of Mosul.
“Our souls are shaken by the brutal acts of violence that for too long have been carried out against innocent citizens, be they Muslim, Christian or from other ethnic and religious groups.”
He had been saddened by reports that numerous people, including many children, had been “killed in cold blood”.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Bushra Shakhshir, Silvia Aloisi, Yesim Dikmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Pravin Char)