The Latest: Iraqis raise flag over church in town near Mosul

fighters-move-closer-to-mosul

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) – The Latest on the developments in Iraq where Iraqi forces and their allies launched a major offensive this week to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city from the Islamic State group (all times local):

7:14 p.m.

Iraqi forces have raised the national flag over a church in a town near Mosul retaken from the Islamic State group.

IS militants had sprayed graffiti on the walls of the church, and the floors were littered with dirt and garbage. The extremists had also marked several homes along the main road of Bartella with the first Arabic letter in a derogatory word for Christians, their way of marking Christian property. Under IS rule, Christians are forced to convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

Iraqi special forces pushed into the traditionally Christian town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Mosul, on Thursday. The assault is part of a wide-scale offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014.

Iraqi soldiers rang the church bell in Bartella on Friday and congratulated Christians.

Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said “Bartella was liberated yesterday, and today we are inside its church. I bring the good news to our Christian brothers that the church is liberated.”

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6:18 p.m.

A local television station says one of its reporters was killed by a sniper while covering clashes in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where Islamic State militants have been battling Kurdish security forces for several hours.

The Turkmeneli TV station said in a news bulletin that Ahmet Haceroglu was killed Friday while covering the fighting.

IS launched a wave of attacks in and around Kirkuk at dawn, in an apparent attempt to divert Iraqi security forces from their offensive against the militant-held city of Mosul, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) away.

Clashes were still underway, with gunfire ringing out and smoke rising over the city center.

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2:55 p.m.

A large fire has broken out in front of the provincial government headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where IS militants have been clashing with security forces since dawn.

Live footage on the local Turkmeneli TV shows smoke billowing up from the area of the headquarters, where clashes are still underway, and a hotel across the street. It isn’t clear what caused the fire.

IS militants launched several attacks in and around Kirkuk early on Friday morning, in what appeared to be a diversionary assault. Kirkuk is some 170 kilometers (100 miles) from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, the target of a large Iraqi offensive that began earlier this week.

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2:45 p.m.

The U.N. refugee agency is reporting “modest” displacement from the Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces and their allies try to drive out Islamic State fighters.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says some 3,900 people, or about 650 families, have fled Mosul and al-Hamdaniya districts since the Iraqi government operation began this week.

Also in Geneva, spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani of the U.N. human rights office said on Friday that it had “verified information” that IS had forced 550 people to leave nearby villages of Samalia and Najafia to go on Monday to Mosul.

She said it was part of the IS group’s “apparent policy of preventing civilians from escaping to areas controlled by Iraqi security forces.”

Shamdasani reiterated concerns IS could use civilians as human shields, and said the office was investigating reports the group had executed at least 40 civilians for suspected disloyalty, without elaborating on those reports “for security reasons.”

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2:05 p.m.

Iraqi special forces are clearing explosives and facing snipers in a town east of Mosul that commanders said they have completely retaken from the Islamic State group.

Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati held a press conference on Friday a kilometer (half a mile) away from the town of Bartella, insisting special forces have “full control.”

He says some snipers remain in the town, and gunfire could be heard in the distance. He says Iraqi forces are now going house by house to clear explosives left behind by the militants.

Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi says a church in the center of the historically Christian town was filled with explosives.

A special forces officer says one soldier was killed and another 10 were wounded in the assault on Bartella, which began at dawn Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Bartella is around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city and has been held by IS for more than two years.

– Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Bartella, Iraq

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1:32 p.m.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric has called on forces taking part in the Mosul offensive to protect civilians as they fight their way toward the IS-held city.

An aide to the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reading a Friday sermon from the cleric, said “we stress today upon our beloved fighters, as we have before on many occasions, that they exercise the greatest degree of restraint in dealing with civilians stuck in the areas where there is fighting. Protect them and prevent any harm to them by all possible means.”

He also called on the “good people of Mosul to cooperate with the security forces as much as possible and to facilitate their mission to free them from the rule of the Daesh terrorists,” referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public, is deeply revered by Iraq’s Shiite majority. His sermon was read by another cleric, Mehdi Karbalaie.

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1:15 p.m.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry has condemned an Islamic State assault in Iraq’s northern province of Kirkuk and says four Iranians were killed in that attack.

The official IRNA news agency quoted ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying that another three Iranians were wounded in the assault.

IS launched a wave of coordinated attacks in an around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk early on Friday that appeared to be aimed at diverting security forces from a massive offensive underway around the IS-held city of Mosul.

The police chief in a town north of Kirkuk says IS militants attacked a power plant there, killing 11 workers, including two Iranians, before blowing themselves up. It was not immediately clear if Iranians were targeted in other attacks.

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12:40 p.m.

A convoy of 20 trucks has left the Turkish capital with humanitarian assistance to northern Iraq. The aid comes as Iraqi and Kurdish troops are pressing ahead with an operation to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.

Kerem Kinik, the president of the Turkish Red Crescent, said during a send-off ceremony in Ankara on Friday that the trucks will deliver some 500 tons of aid to people fleeing the fighting in the regions of Mosul and Tal Afar. The Red Crescent says the trucks are carrying food, clothing, bedding and tents.

Kinik said his organization was also making contingency plans to help Iraqi officials deal with larger population movements, including enlarging the capacity of a camp for displaced persons.

He says that that as the Mosul battle continues, there is a “risk of a large migration wave.”

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10:25 a.m.

Iraqi police say three Islamic State militants have stormed a power plant north of the city of Kirkuk, killing 11 workers, including two Iranians, before blowing themselves up.

Maj. Ahmed Kader Ali says the suicide bombers entered the facility early on Friday, took 10 workers hostage, and asked to be taken to the Iranians who worked there. One of the workers took them to the Iranians before escaping. The militants then killed the Iranians and the other workers, and detonated their explosive vests when police arrived.

The attack took place in the town of Dibis, to the north of Kirkuk city, where another militant assault was underway.

Kirkuk is some 170 kilometers (100 miles) from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have been waging a wide-scale offensive since Monday.

-Emad Matti in Kirkuk, Iraq.

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10:05 a.m.

An Iraqi Kurdish TV channel says all the Islamic State militants who took part in an assault in the northern city of Kirkuk have been killed except for two who are holed up in a damaged building.

Rudaw TV says all the fighters who stormed a police compound early on Friday have been killed. It says the two remaining militants are battling Kurdish forces in a newly built hotel that was damaged in the fighting.

There was no immediate word on casualties among civilians or Kurdish forces.

The militants launched a pre-dawn assault on the city, which is around 170 kilometers (100 miles) from the IS-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have launched a wide-scale offensive.

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9:35 a.m.

The Islamic State group says its fighters have stormed a government compound in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The claim was carried by the IS-run Aamaq news agency early on Friday, and could not immediately be verified.

Witnesses in Kirkuk say militants attacked two police compounds early Friday and reported hearing heavy gunfire and explosions.

Live footage from the Kurdish Rudaw TV shows smoke rising from the city. The station quoted however Kirkuk Governor Najmadin Karim as saying that militants have not seized any government buildings.

Kirkuk is around 170 kilometers (100 miles) from the IS-held city of Mosul. Iraq launched a massive operation to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city, earlier this week.

The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

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8:15 a.m.

Witnesses in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk say armed militants have attacked a local police compound and that fighting is underway.

They say multiple explosions have rocked the city so far in Friday’s assault and that gunfire could be heard ringing through the city.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The attack comes as the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are making a major push to drive Islamic State militants from Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity as they are concerned for their safety.

Kirkuk is an oil rich city some 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad that is claimed by both Iraq’s central government and the country’s Kurdish region.

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