QARQASHAH, Iraq (AP) — A small unit of Kurdish peshmerga forces huddled in an abandoned home on the edge of Qarqashah, one of a dozen villages east of the Iraqi city of Mosul that the peshmerga captured from the Islamic State group this week. The advance aims to lay the groundwork for the battle for Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which has been held by IS militants for more than two years.
Like almost all of the villages retaken this week, Qarqashah is small and was almost entirely empty of civilians. This allowed the U.S.-led coalition to clear territory using air strikes, rather than relying on ground troops to engage in street-to-street battles. But peshmerga military leaders said their forces still took significant casualties.
In Qarqashah village alone, peshmerga commanders estimated they lost 10 men. Even after the operation was declared complete on Monday, fighting was ongoing.
Maj. Gen. Hama Rasheed sat on a plastic chair inside the simple home his men were using as a base. Outside, his fighters exchanged fire with IS militants holed up in a neighboring village.
Fields of dead grass burned from IS-launched mortar rounds. Kurdish and coalition forces stationed atop a nearby hill responded with volleys of artillery fire onto the IS fighters below.
"The main aim of the operation was to open a strategic road to the Christian areas of the Nineveh plain," said Brig. Gen. Dedewan Khurshid Tofiq, one of the peshmerga commanders overseeing the operation. The Nineveh plain stretches north and east of Mosul.
Tofiq added that a bridge, taken on Monday and leading to southeastern Mosul, could facilitate a troop buildup along an eastern Mosul front once it is repaired.
The operation, which lasted just under 48 hours, is expected to be one of many operations aimed at encircling Mosul, the last major IS urban stronghold in Iraq.
The Islamic State group captured large areas of northern and western Iraq in a 2014 shock offensive. It is estimated that IS-held territory in the country has now shrunk by two thirds, following an Iraqi campaign backed by the U.S.-led coalition. The fighting has displaced millions of civilians.
Along berms marking the peshmerga's new front line with IS, convoys of hundreds of civilians fleeing villages outside Mosul drove through the fine desert sand in the intense summer heat.
In one convoy, most of those fleeing were farmers. When Hameeda Muhammed's family was stopped by security forces to search their belongings for weapons she unloaded the animals that had died of thirst along the trip. A dead calf's body was dumped on the side of the road along with seven chickens.
"Under Daesh, we stayed alive thanks to these animals," Muhammed said looking over her dead livestock. She used an Arabic acronym for IS.
Under IS, Muhammed's family quickly became too poor to buy food and was forced to turn to subsistence farming, she said.
"I hope at whatever camp we go to there will be more chickens there," she added.
At Kalak base, from where the offensive was launched, peshmerga reservists were arriving in civilian cars on Monday to reinforce troops at the front.
"Normally we guard oil facilities," said Islam Tamar Khan, a 28-year-old from Dohuk, a city in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. "But we got a call last night saying to come here immediately."
Behind him four Iraqi police helicopters stood parked on the highway. The pilots said since 2014 they have been evacuating soldiers injured during peshmerga operations because the Kurdish forces are short of military helicopters.
"All that matters is that you have the will to fight," said Khan, the Dohuk reservist. "It doesn't matter if you show up in boots or in slippers."
Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed to this report.
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