Iraqi Forces Advance Toward ISIS Stronghold of Mosul

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Iraqi soldiers gather to go battle against Islamic State militants south of Mosul, Iraq, June 15. Reuters

Iraqi forces opened a second front on Saturday in preparation for an assault on the Islamic State militant group (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 U.S.-led coalition air strikes, advanced from a northern refinery town toward an airfield seen as key for a move to retake Mosul, security officials said.

Mosul is Iraq's largest northern city and ISIS's de facto capital in the country.

Government troops cleared two villages and pressed around 20 kilometers (12 miles) 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 ISIS out of Qayara, about 115 km (70 miles) 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 center 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 over the militants by evening, but police sources said on Saturday that government troops had not yet entered seven northern districts held by ISIS 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 neighborhood, a military statement said.

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, an historic bastion of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. 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 Baghdad.

The International Organization 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.