Thousands of Shiite militia members joined Iraq and Kurdish forces Sunday in the unrelenting military march on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and site of what could be the Islamic State's last territorial stand in the country.
Mosul is a Sunni city, adding to the complicated nature of war in the battle-scarred, Shiite-majority nation.
Kurdish peshmerga forces said Sunday they had cleared six villages north and east of Mosul and had taken control of several major roads and landmarks. From the south and west, gun trucks and humvees flying the banners of Shiite militias along with Iraqi flags filled the highways, Reuters reported.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite militias, report to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi but most members are trained and backed by Iran.
About 5,000 fighters had recently joined their commands, bringing to 15,000 the number of Shiite fighters who have joined the fray, according to Karim al-Nuri, of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, the Associated Press reported.
The Iraqi military confirmed the numbers. Iraqi Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat said in a statement on Iraqi state television that more than 60 villages have been liberated and more than 700 militants killed since the government offensive began two weeks ago.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, rolled into Mosul two years ago as part of its effort to carve an extremist Sunni state out of a swath of Iraq and Syria. The effort has lost considerable steam in recent months, leaving the movement to rely on random acts of deadly global terrorism as its only "victories."
Estimates on how many militants remain in Mosul vary, but the number is generally set at less than 10,000.
Shiite flags flown by the militias have made some Sunnis who support the liberation effort uneasy. Amnesty International says Shiite militias in the past have committed "serious human rights violations" and even war crimes against Sunni civilians fleeing Islamic State-held territory.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, however, have not been linked to sectarian violence in the march to Mosul. Some of their members resent being linked to such violence and say their efforts have not been appreciated.
"We fight to help people return to their villages, and they call us militias," said Ali Khiali, 40, a fighter with the Popular Mobilization Forces. "Is that fair?"
The Popular Mobilization Units said they will not enter Mosul but will focus on retaking Tal Afar, a town to the west that had a Shiite majority before it fell to the Islamic State.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Sunday that Turkey would respond if militias “terrorize” Tal Afar, an Iraqi-Turkmen town, in the march to Mosul. He said Turkey will safeguard the rights of ethnic Sunni Turkmens in northern Iraq.