HAJ ALI, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces assaulted Islamic State-held villages across dusty fields south of Mosul on Tuesday, where suicide car bombers and snipers caused some two dozen casualties in a blatant reminder that militants still hold ground far from the main battlefield.
Several hundred fighters from the army and state-sanctioned Shiite militias massed in the nearby village of Haj Ali for the assault, firing mortars at IS positions in the rural villages of Shayala Abali and Shayala Ayma, 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Iraq's second largest city.
Columns of Humvees drove across open plain while firing heavy machine guns and kicking up thick clouds of dust. Suicide car bombers detonated charges that shook the ground a kilometer (0.60 miles) away, killing at least two soldiers and wounding at least 20 who were taken to an aid station, many in shock and with shrapnel wounds.
"Their frontline has been fully destroyed, we're only suffering from one sniper and we're dealing with him," said Sgt. Mohammed, who rushed off to transport wounded before giving his last name. "There were explosive devices and car bombs, but they are finished."
Behind the army troops, dozens of civilian pickup trucks loaded with armed militiamen sped off toward the villages while some of damaged Humvees returned with cracked bulletproof windshields.
The government last month launched a massive campaign to retake Mosul, captured by IS in 2014 and its last major urban center in Iraq. Advances have slowed after some swift initial gains in the extreme east, mostly because some 1 million civilians remain in the city, preventing the Iraqi forces and their allies in a U.S.-held coalition from using overwhelming firepower. Heavy IS resistance inside Mosul has also contributed to the campaign's slow pace.
Progress has been slower elsewhere, with militarized federal police troops at the southern approach still fighting some 25 kilometers from the city center, although other units are within sight of the city's airport.
A day earlier, Iraqi army troops took a mostly abandoned village, al-Qasar, seven kilometers to Mosul's west.
Inside Mosul Tuesday, special forces fighting in the eastern side of the city conducted house-to-house searches in a contested neighborhood, looking for car bombs, explosive devices and snipers, who have been shooting at troops from roofs, according to Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Timimi.
He said the special forces were now in control of about 80 percent of the Zohour neighborhood, a large and densely populated district that is also the site of a major food market. The troops began their assault there a week ago, but have since met stiff resistance.
Probing into the city from the Bakr neighborhood, Maj. Gen. Maan Zaid Ibrahim from the special forces said troops were fighting IS "at close quarters."
"They've been putting the IEDs in houses and kicking the people out of their homes," he said, adding that IS militants were "smashing holes between buildings" to move unseen by troops and reconnaissance drones.
To the west of Mosul near the town of Tal Afar, a spokesman for one of the larger Shiite militias said their positions came under heavy IS shelling Tuesday for the third consecutive day. IS has been firing an average of 100 mortars daily on their positions, said Jaafar al-Husseini the militia's spokesman.
He said fighters were responding with mortars and heavy artillery, adding that two militiamen were killed and seven injured by the shelling on Tuesday.
The militias captured the air strip outside Tal Afar last week, but have yet to launch their much heralded assault with the army on the city itself. Tal Afar was a Shiite majority town with a population of some 200,000 before IS captured it in 2014.
Meanwhile in Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said it had received reports of serious human rights abuses by IS in and around Mosul, saying the extremist group has been installing rocket launchers and placing snipers on the rooftops of civilian houses, in some cases against the wishes of their owners.
"Those who refuse to allow their houses to be used in this way are threatened or killed," it said in a statement Tuesday. It said IS militants reportedly shot and killed 12 civilians in eastern Mosul's Bakr neighborhood for allegedly refusing to allow them to install and launch rockets from the rooftops of their houses.
"These families are effectively used as human shields, placed squarely in harm's way, caught between ISIL and Iraqi security force fire responding to rocket and sniper attacks," it added, using one of several acronyms for IS.
"We are also deeply worried about the fate of hundreds of people who are reportedly being abducted by ISIL and moved to unknown locations," it said.
IS continues to abduct and forcibly move civilians, and kill those it suspects of leaking information to Iraqi security forces, it added.
Reports suggest that on Nov. 25, IS militants publicly shot to death 27 civilians in Muhandiseen Park in northern Mosul. There were also reports of IS fighters shooting at fleeing civilians, including a Nov. 22 report of an IS sniper killing a seven-year-old child who was running toward the Iraqi military's lines in eastern Mosul's Aden neighborhood.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
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