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Sun 29 May 2016 03:44 PM

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US-led coalition troops assisting Kurds in new offensive

Iraqi army keeping up pressure on militants in Falluja in attempt to get closer to Mosul

US-led coalition troops assisting Kurds in new offensive
(Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Servicemen from the US-led coalition were seen near the
front line of a new offensive in northern Iraq launched on Sunday by Kurdish Peshmerga
forces that aims to retake a handful of villages from ISIL east of their Mosul
stronghold.

A Reuters correspondent saw the soldiers loading armoured
vehicles outside the village of Hassan Shami, a few miles east of the
frontline. 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.

Commenting on the ground deployment of coalition soldiers
seen near the battle front, Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition, US Army
Colonel Steve Warren, said: "US and coalition forces are conducting advise
and assist operations to help Kurdish Peshmerga forces".

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, when told that some forces were reported to
be wearing maple leaf patches, the emblem of Canada.

The sighting of the servicemen near the frontline is a
measure of the US-led coalition's deepening involvement on the ground in Iraq
as the war against ISIL approaches its third year.

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

Fighting appeared heavy. Pickup trucks raced back from the
frontline with wounded people in the back, and two of the US-led coalition
servicemen helped haul one man onto a stretcher.

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 ISIL 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.

The Peshmerga have driven the militants back in northern
Iraq last year with the help of airstrikes from a US-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 ISIL in
their stronghold of Falluja, 50 kilometres (32 miles) west of Baghdad, in
central Iraq.

Backed by Shi'ite militias on the ground and airstrikes from
the US-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 specialised 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.