BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) — The Iraqi army pushed into a town near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Saturday, a day after dozens of IS militants stormed into the northern city of Kirkuk, setting off two days of clashes and killing at least 80 people, mostly security forces.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter meanwhile met with Iraq’s prime minister and commanders in Baghdad to discuss the offensive to retake Mosul, which the U.S. is supporting with airstrikes and advisers on the ground.
The Iraqi army said the 9th Division has pushed into the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, and raised the flag over its government compound, but the troops were likely still facing resistance in and around the town. Similar past announcements have often proved premature.
The town is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul. Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive earlier this week aimed at retaking Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014.
Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they move closer to the city.
IS said it foiled an attack on Hamdaniyah and seized vehicles and weapons left by retreating Shiite militiamen. The claim, carried by the extremist group’s Aamaq news agency, could not be confirmed.
An Iraqi television station says one of its reporters was shot dead near Mosul, the second journalist in as many days to be killed while covering the conflict.
Alsumaria TV says cameraman Ali Risan was shot in the chest by a sniper Saturday during a battle in the al-Shura area. Journalist Ahmet Haceroglu of Turkmeneli TV was shot dead by a militant sniper Friday, while covering the IS assault on Kirkuk.
Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area. Inside the town, a road extending more than 100 meters (yards) was completely demolished, with all the homes on either side reduced to rubble.
In Kirkuk, meanwhile, some fighting continued a day after the IS assault on the city, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul. The wave of attacks in and around Kirkuk appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from Mosul.
Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer of the Kirkuk police said at least 80 people were killed in the assault, mainly Kurdish security forces. Another 170 were wounded, he said, adding that a sundown curfew has been imposed on the city.
Omer said Kurdish security forces recovered the bodies of 56 militants who took part in the attack. The Kurds assumed control of Mosul in 2014, when the Iraqi army and police crumbled in the face of a lightning IS advance across northern Iraq.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the Kirkuk assault was a terrorist attack and not a military breach.
“Nearly all the terrorists who entered Kirkuk have been eliminated, and we have full control, except for maybe one area where they are being flushed out,” he said after meeting with Carter.
As the assault on Kirkuk was underway, an airstrike hit a funeral procession in the town of Daquq to the south, killing 17 people, mainly women and children, and wounding another 50, said Daquq Mayor Amir Khodakram. He said it was not clear who carried out the airstrike and that officials have launched an investigation.
The Russian Defense Ministry blamed the strike on the U.S.-led coalition, saying it had “all the signs of a war crime.” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the ministry, said two jets were involved in the raid, and apparently mistook the procession for a gathering of militants.
The U.S. military in Baghdad could not immediately be reached for comment.
Iraq launched a long-awaited operation on Monday aimed at retaking Mosul, its second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Carter’s visit comes two days after a U.S. service member was killed outside Mosul, underscoring the risk that American troops are taking as they advise Iraqi forces in the fight.
More than 4,800 U.S. troops are in Iraq and there are more than 100 U.S. special operations forces operating with Iraqi units. Hundreds more American troops are playing a support role in staging bases farther from the front lines.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a burning sulfur plant south of Mosul that was torched by the Islamic State group is releasing large amounts of noxious gas into the atmosphere, draping towns in the area in toxic smoke.
The air has turned a greyish color as it mixes with smoke from earlier oil well fires set by the militants. The fumes make breathing difficult, with residents saying they are suffering from coughing, headaches and nosebleeds from as far as 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.
“The smoke is from sulfur that was lit by Daesh,” said Alaa Abdullah Khaled, a resident in the nearby village of Awsaja, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. “It is causing suffocation among the children and it gives them nosebleeds.”
Two U.S. military officials said that while the fire was set two days ago, the winds shifted earlier Saturday, sending the smoke south toward Qayara West air field, a staging area for the Mosul offensive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
They said troops at the base were wearing protective masks because of the breathing concerns, and estimated it could take two to three days to put the fire out.