Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a fresh attack on Islamic State (IS) militants early on Sunday, as part of a campaign to capture the de facto IS capital Mosul, a Kurdish official said.
The advance began after heavy shelling and U.S.-led coalition air strikes against IS forces, a Reuters correspondent reported from Wardak, 30 km (19 miles) southeast of Mosul.
The militants were fighting back, firing mortars at the advancing troops and detonating at least one car bomb. Clouds of black smoke rose from the area.
A Peshmerga commander said six villages had been taken from the ultra-hardline Sunni militants by midday.
The Iraqi army and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish self-rule region are gradually taking up positions around Mosul, 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad.
It was from Mosul’s Grand Mosque in 2014 that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning regions of Iraq and Syria.
Mosul is the largest urban center under the militants’ control, and had a pre-war population of nearly 2 million.
Its fall would mark the effective defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has said he aims to retake the city this year.
The operation that started on Sunday is part of the preparations for an offensive on the city itself, said a Kurdish official who declined to be identified.
The Iraqi army is trying to advance from the south. In July it captured the Qayyara airfield, 60 km (35 miles) south of Mosul, which will serve as the main staging post for the expected offensive.