Wave of strikes as IS puts up tough defence of Mosul

raqi forces gather in the al-Shura area, south of Mosul, on October 24, 2016, during an operation to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)
Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul faced stiff resistance on Monday from the Islamic State group despite an unprecedented wave of US-led coalition air strikes in support of the week-old offensive.
Federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters gained ground in several areas, AFP correspondents said, but the jihadists were hitting back with shelling, sniper fire, suicide car bombs and booby traps.
IS has also tried to draw attention away from losses around Mosul by attacking Iraqi forces elsewhere, the latest coming on Sunday near the Jordanian border.
Following a weekend visit to Iraq by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, American officials said the coalition was providing the most air support yet.
"One week into Mosul operation, all objectives met thus far, and more coalition air strikes than any other 7-day period of war against ISIL (IS)," Brett McGurk, the top US envoy to the 60-nation coalition, wrote on social media.
"There were 32 strikes with 1,776 munitions delivered" against IS targets between October 17 and 23, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told AFP.
He said 136 IS fighting positions, 18 tunnels and 26 car bombs were destroyed.
The offensive, launched on October 17, aims to retake towns and villages surrounding Mosul before elite troops breach the city to engage die-hard jihadists in street-to-street fighting.
On the eastern side of Mosul Monday, federal troops were battling IS in Qaraqosh, formerly Iraq\’s largest Christian town.
Forces entered the town for the third day running but armoured convoys around it were shelled from inside the town, an AFP correspondent reported.
Federal forces also scored gains on the southern front where they have been making speedy progress, taking village after village as they work their way up the Tigris Valley.
On the northern front, peshmerga forces were closing in on the IS-held town of Bashiqa.
Turkey, which has a base in the area, said Sunday it had provided artillery support following a peshmerga request.
The presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil is deeply unpopular in Baghdad and the Joint Operations Command on Monday vehemently denied any Turkish participation.
But AFP reporters near Bashiqa said artillery fire from the Turkish base had been sighted several times since the Mosul operation began a week ago.
While an increasingly pragmatic IS has tended recently to relinquish some positions to avoid taking too many casualties, US officials said the group was mounting a spirited defence of Mosul.
If IS loses Mosul in Iraq, only Raqa in Syria will remain as the last major city it controls in either country.
"They have made a very good job of preparing their defences around the city," one US military official told reporters during Carter\’s visit.
The coalition estimates the number of IS fighters defending Mosul — where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" two years ago — at 4,000 to 7,000.
The coalition\’s top commander, General Stephen Townsend, said Sunday he expected not all the jihadists in Mosul would "fight to the death".
"By targeting the mid-tier leaders, which our special operations forces and air force have done remarkably well, we have caused a lot of confusion" in IS ranks, he said.
"I think it\’s going to pay off in the coming weeks."
Seeking to divert attention, the jihadists have tried to hit back with attacks elsewhere, including in the remote western town of Rutba on Sunday.
They briefly seized the mayor\’s office, captured and executed at least five people — civilians and policemen — and still controlled two neighbourhoods on Monday, army commanders said.
On Friday, IS sleeper cells in Kirkuk joined up with gunmen infiltrating the northern city in a brazen raid that saw several government buildings attacked.
The attack sparked clashes that lasted three days as security forces imposed a curfew to hunt down attackers holed up across the city.
The provincial governor, Najmeddin Karim, told AFP on Monday that the attack was over and life was returning to normal.
He said more than 74 IS militants were killed in the violence, which also left at least 46 other people dead, mostly members of the security forces.
UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said in Amman on Monday that the UNHCR was preparing to receive 150,000 Iraqis fleeing the fighting in Mosul.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, called for an investigation into an apparent air strike that killed 15 women in a mosque in Daquq, south of Kirkuk, on Friday.
Russia has blamed the US-led coalition, which denied carrying out the air strike.
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