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In Iraq Forces advance to Mosul city limits

Qaraqosh, which was previously Iraq's largest Christian, saw its first mass in more than two years on Sunday.

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Shiite fighters drive their vehicles towards the village of Umm Sijan, south of Mosul, on October 31, 2016 during Iraqi forces' operation to recapture the main hub city from the Islamic State play

Shiite fighters drive their vehicles towards the village of Umm Sijan, south of Mosul, on October 31, 2016 during Iraqi forces' operation to recapture the main hub city from the Islamic State

(AFP)

Iraqi special forces advanced on the eastern city limits of Mosul on Monday, tightening the noose as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week.

Elite counter-terrorism forces were facing mortar fire as they pushed from the Christian town of Bartalla towards Mosul's eastern suburbs, AFP correspondents at the front said.

As an aircraft struck a suspected IS mortar position in the distance, a convoy of Humvees sprayed gunfire across the arid plain at an industrial area still held by jihadists.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts play

Tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts

(Graphics/AFP)

"The target is to retake Bazwaya and Gogjali, the last two villages before Mosul," Muntadhar al-Shimmari, a lieutenant colonel with US-trained the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), told AFP at the front.

"If we manage that, we'll only be a few hundred metres (yards) from Mosul," he said.

New western front

Shimmari said "only a handful of civilians", mostly members of the Shabak minority, were thought to remain in the two villages.

Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts, in the country's biggest military operation in years.

An Iraqi tank advances towards the village of Salmani, during the ongoing battle to liberate the northern city of Mosul play

An Iraqi tank advances towards the village of Salmani, during the ongoing battle to liberate the northern city of Mosul

(AFP)

On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, the extremist group's last major bastion in Iraq, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region recently took several villages and consolidated their positions.

To the south of the city, federal forces, backed by coalition artillery units stationed in the main staging base of Qayyarah, have been pushing north.

They have the most ground to cover and are still some distance from the southern limits of Mosul.

An Iraqi man walks as smoke rises behind him near Qayyarah, south of Mosul, on October 29, 2016.Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation to cut the Islamic State group's supply lines between its Mosul bastion and neighbouring Syria, opening a new front in the nearly two-week-old offensive. play

An Iraqi man walks as smoke rises behind him near Qayyarah, south of Mosul, on October 29, 2016.Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation to cut the Islamic State group's supply lines between its Mosul bastion and neighbouring Syria, opening a new front in the nearly two-week-old offensive.

(AFP)

Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, opened another front over the weekend.

They are not directly headed for Mosul, instead setting their sights on the town of Tal Afar to the west, with the aim of retaking it and cutting supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian border.

Their leadership says publicly that they do not intend to enter Mosul, which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, but commanders on the ground say they want to fight inside the city.

Shiite fighters flash the sign of victory from the back of a truck as they drive towards the village of Umm Sijan on October 31, 2016 during Iraqi forces' operation to recapture the main hub city from the Islamic State play

Shiite fighters flash the sign of victory from the back of a truck as they drive towards the village of Umm Sijan on October 31, 2016 during Iraqi forces' operation to recapture the main hub city from the Islamic State

(AFP)

The initial shaping phase of the operation, during which dozens of villages and several towns have already been retaken from IS, is still under way.

Once the initial phase is over, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege Mosul, attempt to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to live there, and breach the city to take on die-hard jihadists in street battles.

Post-'caliphate' life

Humanitarian organisations have been fighting against the clock to build up the capacity to handle an expected exodus from the city.

The United Nations says up to a million people could be displaced in the coming weeks.

The UN says up to a million people could be displaced by the Iraqi offensive to reclaim the northern city of Mosul play

The UN says up to a million people could be displaced by the Iraqi offensive to reclaim the northern city of Mosul

(AFP)

More than 17,000 people have already fled their homes since the start of the operation and the Norwegian Refugee Council said there were currently only 55,000 more places available in camps.

In the dozens of villages and towns scattered over territory retaken from IS over the past two weeks, civilians were very slowly returning to a life free from the "caliphate" IS declared in Mosul in 2014.

Qaraqosh, which was previously Iraq's largest Christian, saw its first mass in more than two years on Sunday.

"After two years and three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy," Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, said.

Most retaken areas were far from being habitable however, with months of mine clearing and reconstruction needed before the bulk of the original population can return.

IS has been losing ground steadily in Iraq since 2015 and the outcome of the Mosul battle is in little doubt, but commanders have warned it could last months.

The loss of Mosul, where jihadist supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his Islamic "state" in June 2014, could end the days of IS as a land-holding force in Iraq.

That would leave the Syrian city of Raqa as the group's only major hub. The US-led coalition and its allies on the ground have pledged to attack it soon.

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