(Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces attacked an Islamic State-held town northeast of Mosul on Monday, trying to clear a pocket of militants outside the city while Iraqi troops wage a fierce urban war with the jihadists in its eastern neighborhoods.
As the campaign against Islamic State’s Iraqi stronghold entered its fourth week, fighters across the border launched an offensive in the Syrian half of the jihadist group’s self-declared caliphate, targeting its base in the city of Raqqa.
The assault on Raqqa, held by Islamic State for nearly three years, will be spearheaded by armed groups backed by the United States and supported by U.S.-led air strikes. Unlike in Iraq where the army is leading the assault, however, it not being coordinated with President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian army.
In Bashiqa, some 15 km (10 miles) from Mosul, the first waves of a 2,000-strong peshmerga force entered the town on foot and in armored vehicles or Humvees.
Artillery earlier pounded the town, which lies on the Nineveh plains at the foot of a mountain.
“Our aim is to take control and clear out all the Daesh (Islamic State) militants,” Lieutenant-Colonel Safeen Rasoul told Reuters. “Our estimates are there are about 100 still left and 10 suicide cars.”
Islamic State fighters have sought to slow the offensive on their Mosul stronghold with waves of suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi commanders say there have been 100 on the eastern front and 140 in the south.
A top Kurdish official told Reuters on Sunday the jihadists had also deployed drones strapped with explosives, long-range artillery shells filled with chlorine gas and mustard gas and trained snipers.