U.S.-led coalition troops assisting Kurds in new offensive

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HASSAN SHAMI, Iraq, May 29 (Reuters) - Servicemen from the U.S.-led coalition are assisting Kurdish Peshmerga forces in a new offensive in Iraq that aims to retake a handful of villages from Islamic State east of their Mosul stronghold, a coalition spokesman said.

Soldiers were seen loading armored vehicles outside the village of Hassan Shami, a few miles east of the frontline, a Reuters correspondent reported. They told people present not to take photographs.

They spoke in English but their nationality was not clear. Reuters had earlier reported that they were American but this could not be confirmed officially.

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U.S.-led coalition troops assisting Kurds in new offensive
A general view of a street is seen in Ramadi city, January 16, 2016. Baghdad and Washington have touted Ramadi as the first major success for Iraq's U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State's lightning advance across the country's north and west in mid-2014. But the scorched-earth battlefield tactics used by both sides mean the prize is a shattered ruin. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Christian volunteers, who have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, take part in a training session by coalition forces in a training camp in Duhok province, Iraq March 16, 2016. Picture taken March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Destroyed buildings are seen in the city of Ramadi, January 16, 2016. Baghdad and Washington have touted Ramadi as the first major success for Iraq's U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State's lightning advance across the country's north and west in mid-2014. But the scorched-earth battlefield tactics used by both sides mean the prize is a shattered ruin. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi security forces sniper looks through the scope of his rifle as he guards in the city of Ramadi, January 16, 2016. Baghdad and Washington have touted Ramadi as the first major success for Iraq's U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State's lightning advance across the country's north and west in mid-2014. But the scorched-earth battlefield tactics used by both sides mean the prize is a shattered ruin. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Destroyed buildings are seen in the city of Ramadi, January 16, 2016. Baghdad and Washington have touted Ramadi as the first major success for Iraq's U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State's lightning advance across the country's north and west in mid-2014. But the scorched-earth battlefield tactics used by both sides mean the prize is a shattered ruin. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Iraqi security forces stand with an Islamic State flag which they pulled down in the town of Hit in Anbar province, April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Employees work at strengthening the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, in this file picture taken February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/Files
Employees work at strengthening the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, in this file picture February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/Files
Iraqi soldiers fire a rocket toward Islamic State militants on the outskirt of the Makhmour south of Mosul, Iraq, March 25, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
People displaced by violence from Islamic State militants gather in a building, used as a temporary shelter, in Makhmour area, southeast of Mosul, Iraq, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man stacks mortar shells on a shelf inside a mortar factory in Iskandariya, south Baghdad March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man reacts at the site of a bomb attack at a checkpoint in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Armed Shi'ite volunteers from brigades loyal to radical cleric is Moqtada al-Sadr patrol near the Spiral Minaret of the Great Mosque in Samarra, February 3, 2016. Picture taken February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A member from the Iraqi security forces beats an Islamic State insurgent, who was captured in Tikrit April 1, 2015. Iraqi troops and Shi'ite paramilitary fighters were battling Islamic State on Wednesday in northern Tikrit, which officials described as the Sunni Muslim militant group's last stronghold in the city. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Shi'ite paramilitary fighters and Iraqi security forces arrest Islamic State militants in Tikrit April 1, 2015. The Iraqi government claimed victory over Islamic State insurgents in Tikrit on Wednesday after a month-long battle for the city supported by Shi'ite militiamen and U.S.-led air strikes, saying that only small pockets of resistance remained. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Shi'ite paramilitary fighters launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants in Tikrit March 31, 2015. Iraqi troops aided by Shi'ite paramilitaries have driven Islamic State out of central Tikrit, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on Tuesday, but the fight to retake all of Saddam Hussein's home town continued. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A member of the Iraqi security forces checks his weapon in Tikrit March 30, 2015. Iraqi security forces continued their offensive against Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Tikrit on Monday, in an operation slowed by bombs and booby traps. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the entrance of Mosul Dam August 21, 2014. Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured Iraq's biggest dam from Islamist militants with the help of U.S. air strikes to secure a vital strategic objective in fighting that threatens to break up the country, Kurdish and U.S. officials said on Monday. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY)
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"U.S. and coalition forces are conducting advise and assist operations to help Kurdish Peshmerga forces," U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad told Reuters, commenting on the ground deployment of coalition soldiers seen near the battle front.

He said he could not confirm which country those seen by Reuters were from.

"They may be Americans, they may be Canadians or from other nationalities," he said.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the early hours of Sunday launched an attack to dislodge Islamic State fighters from villages located about 20 km (13 miles) east of Mosul alongside the road to the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

Gunfire and airstrikes could be heard at a distance, while Apache helicopters flew overhead. One of the villages, Mufti, was captured by mid-day, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement.

Mosul, with a pre-war population of about 2 million, is the largest city under control of the militants in both Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the end of last year expressed hope that the "final victory" in the war on Islamic State would come in 2016 with the capture of Mosul.

About 5,500 Peshmergas are taking part in Sunday's operation, said the Kurdish Region Security council.

"This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIL in and around Mosul in preparation for an eventual assault on the city,'' the council said.

"It's also to push ISIS threat away from the Kurdish area," a Kurdish officer, Akram Mohammed, said in Hassan Shami, referring to one of the acronyms of Islamic State, the hardline Sunni militants who seized large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq two years ago.

The Peshmerga have driven the militants back in northern Iraq last year with the help of airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, and are positioned around Mosul in an arc running from northwest of the city to southeast.

The Iraqi army is also keeping up the pressure on Islamic State in their stronghold of Falluja, 50 kilometers (32 miles) west of Baghdad, in central Iraq.

Backed by Shi'ite militias on the ground and airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, the army is about to complete the encirclement of the city in an operation that started on May 23, state TV said Sunday citing military statements.

Counter-terrorism forces specialized in urban warfare have taken up positions around Falluja and should begin advancing in inside the city when the encirclement is complete, the TV said.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles, Writing by Maher Chmaytelli, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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