Kurdish fighters claimed that they had recently seized control over the town of Bashiqa near Mosul from ISIS 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. 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”.
“I have not received a report that says every house has been cleared, every ISIS militant has been killed and every IED (roadside bomb) has been removed,” he added.
Townsend told journalists that Bashiqa was one of the villages outside Mosul that ISIS 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 ISIS. 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.