The Iraqi army has said it has captured the town of Hamdaniyah, near Mosul, as the offensive to drive out the "Islamic State" continues. Fumes from a nearby sulfur plant set ablaze in the fight have claimed casualties.
The Iraqi army said Saturday that its 9th Division had raised the Iraqi flag over the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, but that "Islamic State" (IS) fighters continued to put up resistance on its outskirts.
The move into Hamdaniyah came amid the ongoing offensive by Iraqi government forces to drive the so-called "Islamic State" from nearby Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.
Hamdaniyah is largely uninhabited. In 2014, when IS swept through the region, Hamdaniyah's residents fled the town, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) southeast of Mosul, to seek sanctuary in Kurdish areas.
Meanwhile, a sulfur factory south of Mosul, allegedly set ablaze by IS on Thursday, was still emitting toxic fumes and is considered a potential breathing hazard for nearby American forces and other troops.
According to the news agency AFP, two civilians in nearby villages had died from the fumes. Medics said up to 1,000 people were being treated, with many of them children and elderly people.
"We have had every type of person come in with breathing problems and burning eyes - children, adults, policemen, soldiers," said Abdul Salam Jabbouri, the director of the nearby Qayyara hospital.
Winds shifted early Saturday, sending the fumes toward the Qayyara West airfield, a US hub for the Iraqi offensive, forcing some troops to wear protective masks.
Carter visits Baghdad
Earlier Saturday, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited with Iraqi leaders and commanders in Baghdad as Russia alleged that an airstrike Friday in the town of Daquq had killed 17 civilians taking part in a funeral procession. According to Moscow, two warplanes with the US-led anti-IS coalition were involved in the raid.
The US military has not yet commented on the Russian claim. More than 4,800 US troops are in Iraq, as well as 100 US special operations specialists operating with Iraqi units.
Daquq lies about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Kirkuk, where on Friday IS launched a surprise attack, apparently to divert attention from Mosul.
Kirkuk police commander Khattab Omer said at least 80 people, including Kurdish security forces personnel, had been killed in that assault. The bodies of 56 IS militants had also been recovered, he said.
While meeting with Carter, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the assault on Kirkuk was a terrorist attack and not a military breach.
"We have full control, except for maybe one area where they are being flushed out," Abadi said.
Lengthy battle expected
Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, fell to IS in 2014. Its capture saw the jihadists conquer about a third of Iraq and declare a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.
The operation to retake Mosul is the largest ever undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. It is expected to take weeks, if not months.
UN officials have voiced fears that a million people are still trapped inside Mosul and could be used as human shields by IS fighters.
"Given the sheer size of Mosul - and its experience of savage rule at the hands of the 'Islamic State' - revenge killing will likely be an issue in the days and months ahead," according to the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.
"A massive effort will be required to begin to heal what is a truly fractured city and society," it added.
pj/cmk (AP, dpa, AFP)