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MOSUL, Iraq – Hundreds of Iraqi civilians lined up on Tuesday for food in eastern neighborhoods of Mosul recently retaken from the Islamic State group, as rations ran low, an Iraqi officer said.
Maj. Salam al-Obeidi says some 700 residents gathered in three areas of the Zahra and Qadisiya neighborhoods, the latter of which was the scene of a fierce IS counterattack a day earlier.
"This is a problem for us because the food we have is not enough for them and we're waiting for more food to be sent from the government," al-Obeidi said. "Now the Iraqi soldier is giving his food to the civilians."
Iraq launched a major offensive last month to drive IS out of the northern city, the country's second largest, which is still home to more than 1 million civilians.
Special forces have captured a foothold in the city's east, and have been advancing slowly over the past week to avoid casualties and civilian deaths as IS fighters emerge to attack from the dense, urban landscape, often with armor-plated suicide car bombs.
The militants struck back against special forces in Qadisiya a day earlier, Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi said. Two dozen men wearing suicide vests charged the front lines, setting off a three-hour battle that killed 20 militants and severely wounded a special forces soldier.
The Iraqi armed forces do not release official casualty figures, but field medics have noted dozens of killed and wounded since the operation to liberate the city began on Oct. 17.
Since last week's quick advance into Mosul proper, Iraqi forces have struggled to hold territory under heavy IS counterattacks.
At a news conference outside Mosul, Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led forces supporting the operation, said airstrikes had so far destroyed 59 suicide car bombs and over 80 tunnels.
"We will continue to strike the enemy for as long as it takes for the Iraqi flag to be raised over Mosul and every other corner of this country," he said, adding that the coalition had conducted over 4,000 strikes with air power and artillery since the campaign began.
The United Nations meanwhile said smoke from oil wells and a chemical plant torched by IS near Mosul has forced over 1,500 people to seek medical treatment for respiratory problems.
The group's humanitarian affairs coordination office said the fires have emitted toxic smoke for 25 to 60 days, affecting 14 towns.
It says the mid- and long-term effects on people's health, the environment, agriculture and livelihoods could be dire.
IS shelled and set fire to the al-Mishraq Sulfur Gas Factory south of Mosul in late October, causing the deaths of at least four people from toxic fumes, the U.N. has said, likening the attack to the use of chemical weapons.
Nearby oil wells set ablaze by IS have been burning uncontrollably since June.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad