Kurdish Forces Capture 12 ISIS-Held Villages Near Mosul

Kurdish forces near Mosul
Smoke billows on the front line as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters hold a position near Hasan Sham village, some 45 kilometres east of the city of Mosul, during an operation aimed at retaking areas from the Islamic State group on May 29, 2016. Kurdish forces captured a dozen villages from ISIS in a new advance on Sunday. Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurdish forces on Sunday captured a dozen villages from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) east of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in a series of "shaping operations" aimed at tightening the noose on the radical Islamist group's grand prize.

Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, acts as ISIS's de-facto capital in Iraq. It seized the city in a lightning offensive across northern Iraq in July 2014. It is the location where ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of the group's so-called caliphate, straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, in 2014.

The Kurdish Peshmerga, aided by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, launched a new offensive on the group's territory near Mosul on Sunday to increase the pressure on the group. It captured 12 villages as forces advanced towards the town of Gwer, located around 40 kilometers south of Mosul, a spokesperson for the Kurdish forces told Reuters.

The aim of the forces advancing on Gwer is to reinstall a bridge that the radical Islamist group has destroyed. Its repair would allow Kurdish forces to advance on Mosul across the Great Zab river, with the final aim to encircle the city before an offensive.

An official from the Kurdistan Regional Security Council told Reuters that the new advance was "one of many shaping operations that will also increase pressure on ISIL in and around Mosul," using a different acronym for ISIS.

Washington's anti-ISIS coalition envoy Brett McGurk tweeted: "Noose tightening around ISIL terrorists. Peshmerga advancing east of Mosul, ISF (Iraqi security forces) shoring up south near Qayyarah," referring to the location of a key air base that acts as a logistical hub where U.S. forces are providing support to Iraqi forces.

ISIS has suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria, but it has held on to its two largest captures, Mosul and the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa.

But, after the loss of Fallujah and Ramadi, Mosul remains the sole-remaining Iraqi city under the group's control and its loss would effectively end the group's vision of an Islamic state in Iraq, although its insurgency would likely continue.

The Iraqi leadership has pledged to take back Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city with a population of more than one million people, by the end of the year. But Washington has been more cautious, saying that any capture of the city would likely come in 2017. Such advances by the Peshmerga are intended to prepare the ground for an offensive on the city.

The U.S.-led coalition has launched an operations center in the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour, 44 miles south of Mosul, where Washington's military advisers and Iraqi forces are also stationed.