BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes battled Islamic State (I.S.) militants for a third day on Tuesday in a remote western town, hundreds of miles to the south of the operation to retake the northern city of Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
The clashes underway in Rutba, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, are apparently part of the extremist group’s tactics to divert attention — as well as Iraqi and coalition resources — from the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants.
“Fighting is ongoing in Rutba, which is still contested,” said Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
“The coalition continues conducting strikes to support the Iraqi security forces’ response efforts, including one against a Daesh convoy that was attempting to flee the area,” he added, referring to I.S. by an Arabic acronym.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, said the situation was under control and there were no IS fighters in the town. But Rajeh Barakat, an Anbar provincial councilman who sits on the security committee, said I.S. fighters were still clashing with security forces in two southern neighborhoods of Rutba.
“The clashes are still ongoing,” he said. “We have reports saying the militants killed some civilians and members of the security forces, but we don’t know how many.”
I.S. launched a complex attack on Rutba on Sunday, almost a week into the operation in Mosul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are waging a wide-scale offensive to drive the militants from Iraq’s second-largest city.
Last week IS launched a similar assault in and around the northern city of Kirkuk, some 100 miles southeast of Mosul. The wide-ranging assault ignited gun battles that lasted two days, killing at least 80 people.
Near Mosul, the fighting was still underway on Tuesday in a belt of villages and towns to the north, east and south of the city. Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhil said the Iraqi special forces had reached a village located four miles from the eastern edge of Mosul.
Also Tuesday, around 335 civilians were evacuated to a refugee camp from the village of Tob Zawa, about 5.5 miles from Mosul, which was retaken by special forces on Monday, Fadhil added. He said the civilians were evacuated to protect them from possible I.S. shelling.
Among them was Ezzat Shaheen, who drove his car along with his wife and some of his 10 children. Others were left behind to take care of their land and cattle.
“To be honest, our life [under I.S.] was good,” said Shaheen, a 55-year old with white beard. “There was justice. There were clear principles — such as don’t shave your beard and pray in the mosque … etc — if you don’t violate them no one will [bother] you,” he added.
Shaheen said he was able to sell his cattle and crops in the village or in Mosul without any problems, and that in return, he paid I.S. Zakat, an obligatory annual payment made by Muslims under Islamic law on certain kinds of property.
“Government-run schools were closed, but [I.S.-run] religious ones were open, and we had no clinic in the village, but we could go to Mosul for treatment,” he said, adding when I.S. overran the village more than two years ago, they only registered their weapons and allowed them to keep, but Iraqi troops seized them.
The U.S.-led coalition said it carried out several airstrikes in support of the Mosul operation, including five on Monday that destroyed 22 fighting positions, eight tunnels and nine vehicles, one of which was rigged with explosives.
The U.S. is also providing ground support for the Mosul operation, with more than 100 American soldiers embedded with Iraqi units and hundreds more working in staging bases. A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb last week.