U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says an operation to liberate Iraq's second-largest city from the Islamic State group should not inflame sectarian tensions.

The secretary general said the ongoing operations to free Mosul should instead be a "symbol of national reconciliation."

Guterres made the comments during a meeting in Istanbul with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday, according to a statement from the secretary-general's office.

The recapture of Mosul would effectively break the back of the militant group in Iraq by ending their self-declared "caliphate" there. But many fear that the battle could give way to sectarian tensions.

Guterres is visiting Turkey, five Mideast nations and Germany on his first major trip since taking the helm of the United Nations on Jan. 1.