QARQASHAH, Iraq (AP) — The Kurdish fighters huddled in an abandoned home on the edge of Qarqashah, one of a dozen villages east of Mosul that was captured from the Islamic State group this week in operations aimed at laying the groundwork for an advance on the extremist-held city.
Like almost all the small villages retaken this week, Qarqashah was nearly deserted. That allowed the U.S.-led coalition to clear territory using airstrikes, rather than relying on street-to-street battles by Kurdish forces known as peshmerga. But peshmerga commanders said their forces still took significant casualties.
In Qarqashah alone, peshmerga commanders estimated they lost 10 men. The fighting continued even after the operation was declared complete on Monday.
Maj. Gen. Hama Rasheed sat on a plastic chair inside the simple home his men were using as a base. Outside, his fighters exchanged fire with IS militants holed up in a neighboring village.
Fields of dead grass burned from IS-launched mortar rounds. Kurdish and coalition forces stationed atop a nearby hill responded with volleys of artillery fire onto the IS fighters below.
"The main aim of the operation was to open a strategic road to the Christian areas of the Nineveh plain" stretching north and east of Mosul, said Brig. Gen. Dedewan Khurshid Tofiq, one of the peshmerga commanders overseeing the operation. Tofiq said a bridge seized Monday could facilitate a troop buildup east of Mosul once it is repaired.
The operation, which lasted just under 48 hours, is expected to be one of many aimed at encircling Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and the IS group's last major urban bastion in the country.
The long battle for Mosul is continuing amid violence in much of the rest of the country. At least 20 people have been killed since Monday in attacks across Iraq.
The deadliest occurred on Monday near the town of Rutba in the western province of Anbar, where militants fired mortar rounds on army troops, killing an officer, seven soldiers and a civilian, the Joint Military Operation Command said in a statement.
Four attacks struck the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on Tuesday. In the capital's southern Dora neighborhood, drive-by shooters killed a Justice Ministry employee, police said. Three bombings in different parts of the city killed eight civilians and wounded 22, they said.
Another bomb struck a patrol of anti-IS Sunni tribal fighters in Madain, about 14 miles (20 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, killing two fighters and wounding five others, police said. Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.
The Islamic State group captured large areas of northern and western Iraq in a 2014 shock offensive. It is estimated that IS-held territory in the country has now shrunk by two thirds, following an Iraqi campaign backed by the U.S.-led coalition. The fighting has displaced millions of civilians.
Along berms marking the peshmerga's new front line with IS, convoys of hundreds of civilians fleeing villages outside Mosul drove through the fine desert sand in the intense summer heat.
In one convoy, most of those fleeing were farmers. When Hameeda Muhammed's family was stopped by security forces to search their belongings for weapons she unloaded the animals that had died of thirst along the trip. A dead calf's body was dumped on the side of the road along with seven chickens.
"Under Daesh, we stayed alive thanks to these animals," she said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. She said the family was too poor to buy food after the militants took over and instead relied on subsistence farming.
"I hope at whatever camp we go to there will be more chickens there," she added.
At Kalak base, from where the offensive was launched, peshmerga reservists were arriving in civilian cars on Monday to reinforce troops at the front.
"Normally we guard oil facilities," said Islam Tamar Khan, a 28-year-old from Dohuk, a city in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. "But we got a call last night saying to come here immediately."
Behind him four Iraqi police helicopters stood parked on the highway. The pilots said that since 2014 they have been evacuating peshmerga wounded in the fighting because the Kurdish forces are short of military helicopters.
"All that matters is that you have the will to fight," said Khan, the Dohuk reservist. "It doesn't matter if you show up in boots or in slippers."
Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad contributed to this report.