Mosul offensive going faster than planned, Iraqi PM says

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The battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS
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The battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS
A still image taken from an Islamic State (IS) video released through the group's Amaq news agency shows an unidentified militant addressing the camera. Video said to be shot in Mosul, Iraq, on October 18. 2016. REUTERS/Reuters TV via Amaq news agency TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi army members stand with thier weapons in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Iraqi security forces gesture in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A still image taken from an Islamic State (IS) video released through the group's Amaq news agency claims to show militants patrolling the streets of Mosul. Video said to be shot in Mosul, Iraq, on October 18. 2016. REUTERS/Reuters TV via Amaq news agency
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) gather on the outskirts of Bartila east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
An aviation ordnanceman inspects a bomb on an F/A-18E Super Hornet just before take-off for Mosul, Iraq to provide air-support from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN 69 carrier in Arabia Gulf, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A member of the Peshmerga forces inspects homes on the outskirts of Bartila, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces stand around a tunnel used by Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Bartila, east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Iraqi army personnel ride on a military vehicle in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Smoke rises from a bomb taken through the window of a military vehicle in Qayyarah during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off for Mosul, Iraq to provide air-support from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN 69 carrier in Arabia Gulf, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A U.S army soldier stands with his weapon at a military base in the Makhmour area near Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
U.S army soldiers arrive at a military base in the Makhmour area near Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Peshmerga forces sit in the back of a vehicle in the east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Christian volunteers, who have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, take part in a training at a training base in the town of Alqosh, 50 km (30 miles) from Mosul, Iraq, October 11, 2016. Picture taken October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Peshmerga forces walk in the east of Mosul during operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes at Bartila in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Peshmerga forces with western forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A member from western forces stands with his weapon in the east of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A member of Peshmerga forces stands on a military vehicle in the east of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, early October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
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EAST AND NORTH OF MOSUL, Iraq, Oct 20 (Reuters) - The offensive to seize back Mosul from Islamic State is going faster than planned, Iraq's prime minister said on Thursday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages on the city's outskirts.

Howitzer and mortar fire started at dawn, hitting a group of villages held by Islamic State about 10-20 km (6-12 miles) from Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead, according to Reuters reporters at two frontline locations north and east of Mosul.

SEE EARLIER: Mosul offensive: Iraqi forces, Peshmerga aim to retake city from ISIS

To the sound of machine gun fire and explosions, dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), mounted with machine guns, headed towards Bartella, an abandoned Christian village just east of Mosul.

Militants were using suicide car-bombs, roadside bombs and snipers to resist the attack, and were pounding surrounding areas with mortars, a CTS commander said.

Hours later, the head of Iraq's Special Forces, Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, told reporters at a command center near the frontline that troops had surrounded Bartella and entered the center of the village. Two soldiers were hurt and none killed, and they had killed at least 15 militants, he said.

"After Bartella is Mosul, God willing."

A cloud of black smoke wreathed some frontline villages, probably caused by oil fires, a tactic the militants use to escape air surveillance.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, addressing anti-Islamic state coalition allies meeting in Paris by a video link, said: "The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed."

A U.S.-led coalition that includes France, Italy, Britain, Canada and other Western nations is providing air and ground support to the forces that are closing in on the city in an operation that began on Monday.

Mosul is the last big stronghold held by Islamic State in Iraq and around five times the size of any other city the group has held. The push to capture it is expected to become the biggest battle fought in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The United Nations says Mosul could require the biggest humanitarian relief operation in the world, with worst-case scenario forecasts of up to a million people being uprooted by the battle.

Some 1.5 million residents are still believed to be inside the city, and Islamic State fighters have a history of using civilians as human shields.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said controls were being put in place to check jihadists were not trying to insert themselves among those fleeing Mosul.

BOMBS, BUNKERS AND TUNNELS

On the northern front, Kurdish forces known as peshmerga shot down a small drone that had flown over from the Islamic State lines. It was not clear if the drone, 1 to 2 meters (yards) wide, was carrying explosives or being used for reconnaissance.

"There have been times when they dropped explosives," said Halgurd Hasan, one of the Kurdish fighters deployed in a position overlooking the plain north of Mosul.

Ali Awni, a Kurdish officer, kept a handheld radio receiver open on a frequency used by Islamic State. "They are giving targets for their mortars," he said.

"Liberating Mosul is important for the security of Kurdistan," Awni added. "We will have to fight them in the mind as well, to defeat their ideology."

So far, advancing Kurdish troops have moved through villages outside the city, finding abandoned houses rigged with explosives and underground bunkers. In some cases, Islamic State fighters appear to have fled without putting up a fight.

"We did not face resistance from Daesh. They are retreating to Mosul and to Syria. They gave no resistance," peshmerga soldier Ahmed Midhat Abdullah told Reuters in the village of Nawaran, north of Mosul, where a Kurdish column of armored vehicles was advancing in the dusty desert terrain.

Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which swept into Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq in 2014 and has used extreme violence to administer a self-proclaimed caliphate there and in parts of neighboring Syria.

"The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL's movements," the Kurdish general military command said in a statement announcing the launch of Thursday's operations.

Related: Meet the women stepping up to battle the Islamic State:

15 PHOTOS
Remarkable Kurdish women in militias fighting against ISIS
See Gallery
Remarkable Kurdish women in militias fighting against ISIS
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Lucia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, plays with a dog during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Lucia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, poses during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Ormia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, loads her weapon during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syriac Christian fighter, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, poses during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, sit talking during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syriac Christian woman, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, takes part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, have lunch on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter of the Kurdish of the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) sits on sand bags as she holds a position on the front line on October 19, 2013 in the Kurdish town of Derik (aka al-Malikiyah in Arabic), in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate on the border with Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish fighters from several villages in oil-rich Hasake province are engaged in combat against Al-Qaeda affiliated groups the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP PHOTO FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Young Syrian-Kurdish woman hides under hay during a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
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SHI'ITE MILITIA

The area around Mosul is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of Iraq, and Western countries backing the assault are concerned that communities feel safe as the government forces advance, to avoid revenge attacks or ethnic and sectarian bloodletting as fighters are driven out.

Western allies have sought to limit the role of Shi'ite militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which human rights groups say have carried out killings and kidnappings of Sunnis in other areas freed from Islamic State.

After the Paris meeting, Iraq's foreign minister offered reassurance: "In answer to those who criticize the PMF for behaving badly, this is not true ... They are part of the Iraqi forces and will be disbanded afterwards."

Abadi said the Mosul advance demonstrated that Iraqis from all groups could fight in common cause, noting that it was the first time in 25 years that troops from the Baghdad government had entered territory controlled by the Kurdish region to fight alongside the peshmerga.

"Our war today in Mosul is an Iraqi war conducted by Iraqis for Iraqis and for the defense of Iraq's territory," he said. "Full Iraqi unity is shining through and more than ever showing the unity to vanquish terrorism."

Islamic State published a video showing masked fighters walking in single file up a street at night under the cover of trees, while an unidentified man, apparently their commander, pledged to defeat the United States in Iraq.

U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to bolster his legacy by seizing back as much territory as he can from Islamic State before he leaves office in January.

Islamic State "will be defeated in Mosul," Obama said on Tuesday, expecting the fight to be difficult.

Iraqi officials and residents of Mosul say Islamic State is preventing people from leaving the city, in effect using them as shields to complicate air strikes and the ground progress of attacking forces.

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