Paramilitaries in Iraq have launched an assault on the town of Tel Afar, which was mainly Shiite before it fell to Sunni jihadis. The Iran-backed Shiite militia have promised not to advance into majority Sunni Mosul.
The paramilitary operation to retake Tel Afar began on Saturday, with the aim of cutting "the so called "Islamic State" (IS)" supply lines between Mosul and Syria.
"The wounded city of Tel Afar (is among) the cities to be liberated," a statement from the Popular Mobilisation forces website read.
Iranian strategists are advising the fighters, said a spokesman for another group, the Hezbollah Brigades, with Iraqi aircraft carrying out airstrikes.
The spokesman said militia would focus on securing Tel Afar, to the west of Mosul, and securing the western border with Syria, rather than advancing on the chiefly Sunni city.
IS still holds territory on the other side of the border, and has been able to move fighters, weapons and supplies between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has served as the group's de facto capital.
Last week, Iraq embarked on the huge operation to retake its second city Mosul. The involvement of the Shiite militias has prompted concern that the battle could aggravate sectarian splits.
Former enemies, uneasy allies
Many of the Shiite militia were originally formed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and fought both US forces and Sunni insurgents. They were mobilized again, this time endorsed by the Iraqi state, when IS swept through northern and central Iraq in 2014.
Iraqi forces have advanced on Mosul from several directions, but have made uneven progress since the offensive began. Iraqi troops led by elite forces are just 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the edge of Mosul on the eastern front, but progress has been slower in the south, with Iraqi forces still about 35 kilometers away.
The offensive against IS in Mosul involves more than 25,000 soldiers, police, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen and the Shiite militia.
Slow southern front advance
Iraqi commanders said on Saturday that troops had pushed into the town of Shura, on the southern side of Mosul, after using airstrikes and heavy artillery. It was unclear how many civilians were left in the city, with many IS fighters fleeing the town earlier in the week, taking civilians with them as human shields. A volley of airstrikes was said to have, at least partially, disrupted the forced march towards Mosul.
The United Nations said on Friday that IS had taken tens of thousands of people from around Mosul to use as human shields in the battle for the city.
In a statement, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned IS' "depraved, cowardly strategy."
rc/jlw (AFP, AP)