BARTELLA, Iraq — Iraqi forces pushed into a town near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Saturday after a wave of militant attacks in and around the northern city of Kirkuk set off more than 24 hours of heavy clashes, with ongoing skirmishes in some areas.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter meanwhile arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to meet with Iraqi commanders to discuss the offensive to retake Mosul, which the U.S. is supporting with airstrikes and advisers on the ground.
The Iraqi army said the 9th Division has pushed into the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, and raised the flag over its central government compound, but the troops were likely still facing resistance in and around the town. Similar past announcements have often proved premature.
Two officers from the 9th Division confirmed troops had captured the government compound and raised the flag over it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The town is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul. Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive earlier this week aimed at retaking Mosul, the country's second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014.
Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they move closer to the city.
IS said it foiled an attack on Hamdaniyah and seized vehicles and weapons left by retreating Shiite militiamen. The claim, carried by the extremist group's Aamaq news agency, could not be confirmed.
An Iraqi television station says one of its reporters was shot dead near Mosul, the second journalist in as many days to be killed while covering the conflict.
Alsumaria TV says cameraman Ali Risan was shot in the chest by a sniper Saturday during a battle in the al-Shura area. Journalist Ahmet Haceroglu of Turkmeneli TV was shot dead by a militant sniper Friday, while covering the IS assault on Kirkuk. The U.S. service member killed earlier this week was the fourth U.S. combat death in Iraq since the U.S. began military operations against the Islamic State in August 2014, and the first since the Mosul operation began. The service member was working with Iraqi special forces northeast of Mosul and serving as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist.
More than 4,800 U.S. troops are in Iraq and there are more than 100 U.S. special operations forces operating with Iraqi units. Hundreds more American troops are playing a support role in staging bases farther from the front lines.
U.S. military officials say that a fire at a sulfur plant in northern Iraq set by Islamic State militants on Thursday is creating a potential breathing hazard for American forces and other troops at a logistical base south of Mosul.
Two officials said that while the fire was set two days ago in Mishraq, the winds shifted earlier Saturday, sending the smoke south toward Qayara West air field, a staging area for the Mosul offensive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
They said troops at the base were wearing protective masks because of the breathing concerns, and estimated it could take two to three days to put the fire out.
Matti reported from Kirkuk. Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Joseph Krauss in Baghdad, Adam Schreck and Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
Thanks for sharing my friend SFC Joe S. Davis Jr., MSM, DSL what seems to be good news from Mosul after Kirkuk. I certainly hope the Iraq and Kurdish Peshmerga forces apparent success is not die to an ISIS plan to lure as many as possible to the city center.