Iraqi Kurds advance near ISIS-held city

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In this Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016 photo, a soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces in the role of an Islamic State militant runs through green smoke during a training exercise to prepare for the operation to re-take Mosul from IS, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo / Maya Alleruzzo)

Balint Szlanko and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, The Associated Press
IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurdish forces say they have retaken five villages east of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in an operation launched early Sunday.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces known as peshmerga aim to “clear several more villages” in “one of many shaping operations” that will increase pressure on the extremist group, the Kurdish region’s Security Council said in a statement.

Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Dedewan Khurshid Tofiq described the operation outside Mosul as “ongoing.” Rudaw, a local television network, showed footage of smoke rising from a village in the distance as armoured vehicles pushed across a field.
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The council’s statement said the area cleared is about 50 square kilometres. It said the U.S.-led coalition is supporting the operation with airstrikes, one of which destroyed a car bomb.

Iraq’s Health Ministry meanwhile said a fire which swept through the maternity ward of a hospital in Baghdad last week was a “crime” and not an accident, without providing further details. The blaze in the capital’s Yarmouk hospital killed 13 people, according to the ministry’s statement.

Also on Sunday, Iraqi President Fuad Masoum approved the death sentences of 36 men sentenced to hang over the June 2014 massacre of hundreds of military recruits based near the central city of Tikrit. The Islamic State group massacred the soldiers and buried them in mass graves during its lightning advance across Iraq that summer.

Iraqi forces have made steady progress against the extremists in recent months, and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is the group’s last remaining urban stronghold in the country.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.