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Suicide bombers, mortar fire in battle for Iraq village

Members of Iraqi pro-government forces drive towards the frontline on October 21, 2016 near the village of Tall al-Tibah, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul, during an operation to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. The operation is Iraq's biggest in years and aims to wrest back Mosul, the country's second city and the last major IS stronghold in Iraq. BULENT KILIC / AFP

Members of Iraqi pro-government forces drive towards the frontline on October 21, 2016 near the village of Tall al-Tibah, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul, during an operation to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. The operation is Iraq’s biggest in years and aims to wrest back Mosul, the country’s second city and the last major IS stronghold in Iraq.<br />BULENT KILIC / AFP

“We need an ambulance, we need an ambulance,” an Iraqi officer says over the radio, moments after an explosives-rigged truck disappeared in a column of flame and dust.

Iraqi forces advancing toward a village in Nineveh province had already been targeted with gun and mortar fire from Islamic State group jihadists inside.

A suicide bomber then drove the explosives-rigged truck toward them, but security forces “blew up the vehicle before it reached” them, federal police Second Lieutenant Faruq Ahmed Mohammed told AFP at a position to the south.

Despite this, a police officer was lightly wounded in the blast, Mohammed said.

Security forces advanced and fell back, exchanging fire with the jihadists over a period of hours and eventually targeting them with mortar rounds.

The resistance they faced demonstrates that even a small number of jihadists can slow down larger and more heavily armed forces, especially when civilians are present — an issue Iraqi troops will continue to face as they push north toward the city of Mosul.

Earlier in the day, black smoke rose from fires in the village as Iraqi forces slowly advanced in armoured vehicles along a dusty track through the desert to avoid bombs planted by IS on the main road.

Military engineers were working to clear the road — efforts evidenced by periodic explosions that sent clouds of dust rising into the air — but progress was slow.

Iraqi police and soldiers took position on a hill to the south of the village, while other units later moved in from the east, the main scene of the fighting for most of the day.

IS fired mortar rounds toward the advancing forces, most of which missed by a wide margin, though at least one exploded near a group of Humvees.

– White flags raised –

White flags were raised inside the village — a signal the Iraqi government had called on civilians to use to indicate that they were present.

“There are families who have white flags inside the village, and we can’t shell (it) with the tank or with the mortar unless the families leave,” Second Lieutenant Ali Bassim of the interior ministry’s elite Rapid Response Division said.

Iraqi forces were trying to advance close enough to establish a corridor for civilians to exit, he said, but they were targeted by mortar rounds and suicide bombing.

Eventually, more troops moved toward the west side of the village, some walking while others drove slowly in Humvees, apparently seeking to identify and avoid bombs planted by the jihadists.

They exchanged machinegun fire with IS as they closed in, and security forces said they spotted another suicide bomber on the edge of the village, while more explosives-rigged vehicles were said to be waiting inside.

Iraqi forces eventually tried to destroy the waiting car bombs with a 120 millimetre mortar.

The recoil from the heavy rounds sent sheets of dust drifting across the ground when they were fired.

“The target is explosives-rigged vehicles, more than three vehicles… close to our units,” said an artillery commander who did not want to be identified by name.

The regular units “are not able to (attack) them because the vehicles are behind the houses, behind walls, behind berms,” he said.

Asked about the civilians present in the village, the commander said that six or seven vehicles had departed and that there were no more inside.

More than four hours after the fighting began, the village remained in IS hands.

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