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Iraqi forces assault villages outside Mosul

| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, 4:48 a.m.

HAJ ALI, Iraq — 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, 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 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 ISIS 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 ISIS 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 15 miles 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, more than 4 miles 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.

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