Iraqi Forces Advance On Mosul; IS Militants Attack Western Iraqi Town

Iraqi and Kurdish forces have advanced toward Mosul as part of an operation to retake the northern city from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

Also on October 23, IS militants launched an attack on a town in Iraq's western Anbar Province in an attempt to divert attention from the offensive on Mosul, the last major IS stronghold in the country.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched fresh attacks to the northeast of Mosul, claiming to have recaptured the town of Bashiqa near Mosul from IS fighters.

Masud Barzani, president of the Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Kurds had succeeded in liberating Bashiqa.

The capture of Bashiqa, if confirmed, would mark the removal of one more obstacle on the road to Mosul.

The offensive to recapture Mosul began a week ago, with Peshmerga forces closing in from the north and east while Iraqi government forces approach the city from the south.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said his own information "suggests that President Barzani is right, that there has been a considerable success at Bashiqa."

Reuters video footage from Nawran, a town near Bashiqa, showed Kurdish fighters using a heavy mortar, a machine gun, and small arms as smoke rose over the area.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkish artillery was supporting the Peshmerga, according to CNN Turk.

"The Peshmerga have mobilized to cleanse the Bashiqa region from Daesh [IS]. They asked for help from our soldiers at the Bashiqa base. So we are helping the tanks with our artillery there," CNN Turk quoted Yildirim as saying.

The town of Bashiqa, seized by IS extremists in August 2014, is about 24 kilometers to the northeast of Mosul.

Nearby is the military base known as Camp Bashiqa where at least 500 and as many as 1,000 Turkish soldiers have been training Sunni Arab tribal militia fighters and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops for the fight against IS.

The Turkish soldiers were posted at Camp Bashiqa in in late 2015 at the invitation of Iraq's northern Kurdish autonomous region, but their presence is opposed Iraq's government in Baghdad -- which has repeatedly called on Turkey to withdraw the troops from Iraqi territory.

Ankara's latest involvement in northern Iraq could further increase tensions with Baghdad, which has rejected an offer from Turkey to take part in the Mosul offensive.

Meanwhile, IS militants' attack on Rutba, a town in the western Anbar Province, comes four months after government-backed forces recaptured the city, which had been occupied by IS militants since June 2014.

The mayor of Rutba, Imad Meshaal, described clashes in the city center between IS and security forces. He called on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to send military reinforcements.

Just a few days earlier, on October 21, Iraqi security forces repelled a major attack by IS militants on the oil-producing city of Kirkuk but at least 80 people, mainly security forces, were killed.

The attacks on Rutba and Kirkuk appear to be aimed at diverting attention from the ongoing assault on Mosul.

On a trip to Iraq to review the situation, Carter met with Prime Minister Abadi on October 22 and arrived in Irbil on October 23 to meet with Kurdish leader Barzani.

He will also likely discuss the role of Turkish troops in the region.

Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim said on October 22 that Turkey was ready to "take measures" in northern Iraq because Ankara is not satisfied with promises from the United States and Baghdad about the role of Kurdish militants and Shi'ite militia fighters in the battle for Mosul.

But the Turkish military presence has sparked a dispute with Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, which wants its forces to be at the forefront of the offensive and has repeatedly called for the Turkish troops to leave the country.

Washington has been urging Ankara and Baghdad to resolve the dispute.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been fighting IS militants since the start of the offensive on October 16 in a belt of mostly uninhabited towns and villages around Mosul.

More than 4,000 people have fled areas around the Iraqi city since the massive military operation to retake it began, the UN said on October 23.

UNICEF's Iraq representative, Peter Hawkins, said that at one refugee camp the conditions for children were "very, very poor."

More than 25,000 Iraqi ground forces and U.S.-led coalition aircraft and advisers are involved in the Mosul offensive, which is expected to take weeks, if not months.

Mosul is home to more than a million civilians and while Iraqi forces are now fighting in sparsely populated areas, aid groups fear the start of a huge exodus of people when forces approach the limits of the city.

With reporting by AP, AFP, BBC, and Reuters