BY QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA AND JOSEPH KRAUSS
BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) — U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fought their way inside two villages Monday as they crept closer to Mosul a week into an offensive to retake the Islamic State-held city, but they also faced questions over a suspected airstrike on a mosque that killed 13 people.
Iraqi special forces shelled militant positions before dawn near Bartella, a historically Christian town east of Mosul that they had retaken last week. With patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers on their Humvees, they then pushed into the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from Mosul, amid heavy clashes.
Until now, most of the fighting has been in largely uninhabited towns and villages, but the special forces found more than 70 civilians sheltering in Tob Zawa. They will encounter many more civilians as they get closer to Mosul, still home to more than 1 million people.
Abdeljabar Antar, who had remained in Tob Zawa with his wife and four children, said the IS militants had included foreign fighters “who spoke languages I don’t know – Russians, Pakistanis.” They had forced children to go to religious school and military training, and everyone had to attend prayers five times a day, he added.
In the days before the offensive, Antar said the village ran low on food and supplies, and that residents had to get permission from IS to leave.
“I hope life will return to the way it was before 2014,” he said, referring to the summer when IS militants swept across northern and central Iraq, capturing Mosul and surrounding towns.
The Iraqi Federal Police, a military-style force, pushed into a second village in the Shura district south of Mosul, where they fired a large anti-aircraft gun and rocket-propelled grenades. They later appeared to have secured the village, a cluster of squat homes on a desert plain, and handed out water and other aid to civilians.
The U.S.-led coalition said it had carried out six airstrikes Sunday near Mosul, destroying 19 fighting positions and 17 vehicles, as well as rocket and mortar launchers, artillery and tunnels.
Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into last week’s purported airstrike in northern Iraq that hit the women’s section of a Shiite mosque in the town of Daquq.
The strike happened amid a large Islamic State assault on nearby Kirkuk that appeared aimed at diverting attention from the fight for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
The IS attack on Kirkuk, 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul, lasted for two days and killed at least 80 people, mainly members of the Kurdish security forces that took control of the city in 2014 as Iraqi forces crumbled amid an IS advance.
Human Rights Watch said Daquq’s residents believe Friday’s attack was an airstrike because of the extent of the destruction and because planes could be heard overhead. The New York-based group said at least 13 people were reported killed.
The coalition and the Iraqi military, which are waging the offensive, are the only parties known to be flying military aircraft over Iraq.
Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the coalition had “definitively determined” it did not conduct the airstrike that killed civilians in Daquq and had shared its findings with the Iraqi government, which is doing its own investigation.
“The Coalition uses precision munitions and an exhaustive process to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties and collateral damage because the preservation of civilian life is (of) paramount importance to us,” Dorrian said.
Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Military Command, confirmed the Iraqi government was investigating the attack. He declined to say whether Iraqi or coalition planes were in the area at the time.
Elsewhere in the country, Iraqi forces battled IS militants for a second day in the far western town of Rutba, hundreds of kilometers (miles) south of Mosul, after what appeared to be another Kirkuk-style assault.
Rasool said the situation in Rutba “is completely under control,” and the militants have no presence in the town.
But Dorrian, the coalition spokesman, said “Iraqi forces continue to attack the enemy with coalition air support” in Rutba and that “operations are ongoing.”
He said coalition airstrikes have destroyed five Islamic State vehicles and killed a “significant” number of militants in the town, located in sprawling Anbar province.
The IS-run Aamaq news agency posted video that it said showed fighters attacking a military position north of Rutba on Sunday. It said several groups of fighters had infiltrated the town, setting off two car bombs, while other militants attacked the perimeter. The claims could not be independently confirmed.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a series of small bombings killed 11 people and wounded another 35, according to police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The campaign to retake Mosul comes after months of planning and involves more than 25,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters and state-sanctioned Shiite militias. It is expected to take weeks, if not months.
IS has suffered a series of setbacks in the past year, and Mosul is its last major urban bastion in Iraq.
© 2016 The Associated Press