HAJ ALI, Iraq – Iraqi forces on Tuesday assaulted villages far south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, attempting to clear rural areas of Islamic State fighters who stayed behind to hinder their advance.
Several hundred fighters from the army, state-sanctioned Shiite militias and paramilitary federal police massed in the nearby village of Haj Ali, firing mortars at IS positions in the villages of Shayala Abali and Shayala Ayma, 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Iraq's second largest city.
An Associated Press team at the scene saw a column of Humvees advancing on the two villages across an open field, firing heavy machine guns and kicking a thick cloud of dust. The column was attacked by several massive car bombs that shook the ground a kilometer (0.60 miles) away. Two soldiers were killed and some 20 wounded were taken to a field hospital, many in shock and with shrapnel wounds.
Later, dozens of civilian pickup trucks loaded with armed militiamen sped off toward the villages, as the column of Humvees retreated, with some of them damaged or showing cracked windshields.
The government last month launched a massive campaign to retake Mosul, captured by IS in 2014. It is the extremist group's last major urban center in Iraq. The campaign has been progressing slowly, mostly because of the presence inside Mosul of some 1 million civilians, preventing the Iraqi forces and their allies in a U.S.-held coalition from using overwhelming firepower. Heavy IS resistance inside Mosul has also contributed to the campaign's slow pace.
Inside Mosul Tuesday, special forces fighting in the eastern side of the city conducted house-to-house searches in a contested neighborhood, looking for car bombs, explosive devices and snipers, who have been shooting at troops from roofs, according to Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Tamimy.
He told the AP that the special forces were now in control of about 80 percent of the Zohour neighborhood, a large and densely populated district that is also the site of a major food market. The special forces began their assault on Zohour a week ago, but have since met stiff resistance.
To the west of Mosul near the town of Tal Afar, a spokesman for one of the larger Shiite militias said their positions on Tuesday were coming under heavy IS shelling for the third successive day. IS has been firing an average of 100 mortars daily on their positions, the spokesman, Jaafar al-Husseini.
The militias were responding with mortars and heavy artillery, he told the AP.
He said two fighters were killed and seven injured by the shelling on Tuesday.
The militias captured the air strip outside Tal Afar last week, but they are yet to launch their much heralded assault with the army on the city itself. Tal Afar was a Shiite majority town with a population of some 200,000 before IS captured it in 2014.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said it had received reports of serious human rights abuses by IS in and around Mosul, saying the extremist group has been installing rocket launchers and placing snipers on the rooftops of civilian houses, in some cases against the wishes of their owners.
"Those who refuse to allow their houses to be used in this way are threatened or killed," it said in a statement Tuesday. It said IS militants reportedly shot and killed 12 civilians in eastern Mosul's Bakr neighborhood for allegedly refusing to allow them to install and launch rockets from the rooftops of their houses.
"These families are effectively used as human shields, placed squarely in harm's way, caught between ISIL and Iraqi security force fire responding to rocket and sniper attacks," it added, using one of several acronyms for IS.
"We are also deeply worried about the fate of hundreds of people who are reportedly being abducted by ISIL and moved to unknown locations," it said.
IS was continuing to abduct and forcibly move civilians, and kill those it suspects of leaking information to Iraqi security forces, it added.
Reports suggest that on Nov. 25, IS militants publicly shot to death 27 civilians in Muhandiseen Park in northern Mosul. There were also reports of IS fighters shooting at fleeing civilians, including a Nov. 22 report of an IS sniper killing a seven-year-old child who was running toward the Iraqi military's lines in eastern Mosul's Adan neighborhood.