SHURA, Iraq – Iraqi forces pushed into a town south of Mosul on Saturday after Islamic State (ISIS) fighters fled with civilians used as human shields, as state-sanctioned Shiite militias joined the offensive by opening up a new front to the west.
Iraqi troops approaching Mosul from the south advanced into Shura after a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes and artillery shelling against militant positions inside the town. Commanders said most of the ISIS fighters withdrew earlier this week with civilians, but that U.S. airstrikes had disrupted the forced march, allowing some civilians to escape.
"After all this shelling, I don't think we will face much resistance," Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jabouri said. "This is easy, because there are no civilians left," he added. "The big challenge for us is always the civilians."
Lt. Col. Hussein Nazim of the militarized Federal Police, which is leading the advance from the south, said some civilians, mainly the elderly and infirm, might still be in the city, but that the use of heavy artillery and airstrikes was a standard tactic.
"We must strike like this before we move in or else we will be easy prey for Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake militant-held Mosul last week. The offensive to retake Iraq's second largest city, which is still home to more than 1 million people, is expected to take weeks, if not months.
State-sanctioned Shiite militias meanwhile launched an assault to the west of Mosul aimed at driving ISIS from the town of Tel Afar, which had a majority Shiite population before it fell to the militants in the summer of 2014. They will also try to secure the western border with Syria, where ISIS shuttles fighters, weapons and supplies between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of its self-styled caliphate.
The involvement of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias has raised concern that the battle for Mosul, a Sunni-majority city, could aggravate sectarian tensions. The militias say they will not enter the city itself.
Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, said his group and the other militias were advancing with the aid of Iranian advisers and Iraqi aircraft.
He said the U.S.-led coalition, which is providing airstrikes and ground support to the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga, is not playing any role in the Shiite militias' advance.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a suicide bomber targeting an aid station for Shiite pilgrims killed at least seven people and wounded more than 20, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief reporters.
No one immediately claimed the attack, but ISIS often targets Iraq's Shiite majority, which the Sunni extremists view as apostates deserving of death.
The Mosul offensive involves more than 25,000 soldiers, Federal Police, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen and the Shiite militias, which operate under an umbrella organization known as the Popular Mobilization Units.
Many of the militias were originally formed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to battle American forces and Sunni insurgents. They were mobilized again and endorsed by the state when ISIS swept through northern and central Iraq in 2014, capturing Mosul and other towns and cities.
Iraqi forces moving toward Mosul from several directions have made uneven progress since the offensive began Oct. 17. They are 4 miles from the edge of Mosul on the eastern front, where Iraq's special forces are leading the charge. But progress has been slower in the south, with Iraqi forces still 20 miles from the city.
The U.N. human rights office said Friday that ISIS has rounded up tens of thousands of civilians in and around Mosul to use as human shields, and has massacred more than 200 Iraqis in recent days, mainly former members of the security forces.
The militants have carried out mass killings of perceived opponents in the past and boasted about them in grisly photos and videos circulated online. The extremist group is now believed to be cracking down on anyone who could rise up against it, focusing on men with military training or past links to the security forces.
There have been no major advances over the past two days, as Iraqi forces have sought to consolidate their gains by clearing explosive booby-traps left by the extremists and uncovering tunnels they dug to elude airstrikes.