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Iraqi forces push on against IS in eastern Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — A top Iraqi commander said on Sunday that troops were continuing to advance toward the center of Mosul, pushing back Islamic State fighters, hindered by sniper fire and suicide bombings as well as concern over the safety of civilians

A few hundred civilians, meanwhile, emerged from rubble-strewn frontline neighborhoods in search of safer ground, including women and children, some of them carrying bags or small suitcases packed with belongings.

Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi told The Associated Press that his special forces were searching homes in areas retaken from IS, looking for militants and vehicles rigged to be used in suicide bombings. Troops in those areas continue to be hit by mortar and sniper fire, he said.

Another Iraqi army commander, Brig. Gen. Haidar Fadel, said a suicide car bomber hiding inside a house attempted late Saturday to drive his vehicle toward troops in the city’s Tahrir neighborhood. He was shot dead and his explosives-laden car detonated at a safe distance, he added.

However, Fadel said the car exploded close to a house, causing it to collapse, killing four civilians and wounding four others.

The troops fighting in Mosul’s eastern side laid siege Sunday to the Al-Zohour neighborhood, about eight kilometers (five miles) from the city center. The arrival of the troops at the neighborhood’s fringes prompted hundreds of civilians to emerge from their homes waving white flags and seek safety behind army lines.

“The biggest hindrance to us is the civilians whose presence is slowing us down,” declared al-Aridi of the special forces. “We are soldiers who are not trained to carry out humanitarian tasks.”

The Iraqi military began the campaign one month ago to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major urban center in the country still held by the militants. The campaign has been slow, with IS putting up stiff resistance. Most gains thus far have been made by the special forces operating in the section of Mosul east of the Tigris river. The campaign is being assisted by airstrikes from the U.S.-led military coalition.

IS captured Mosul, 360 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad, in the summer of 2014 as part of a blitz that placed nearly a third of Iraq under the militants’ control. Iraqi troops, federal police and allied Shiite militias have over the past year pushed IS militants from most of the vast Sunni province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, and areas to the north and east of the Iraqi capital.

Army troops, meanwhile, arrived on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul to reinforce the state-sanctioned Shiite militias who have captured the town’s airport and are preparing to retake the town, according to two senior militia officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Prior to its capture by IS, Shiites constituted the majority of Tal Afar’s estimated 200,000 residents.

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Associated Press writer Hussein Malla contributed to this report.

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