The Iraqi military said Thursday that it had captured several villages in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, backed by American airstrikes, in an operation that it described as an early phase of the campaign to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State extremists.
Iraqi officials did not say when an assault on Mosul itself would begin.
Col. Steve Warren, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, said the retaking of the villages in Nineveh was a “planned operation” that was successful, but added that it did not necessarily point to the beginning of the long-awaited assault on Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and capital of Nineveh Province.
The city has been under Islamic State rule since the militants’ surprise offensive in the spring of 2014. American and Iraqi officials have cast the retaking of Mosul as a symbolically and politically crucial step for the Iraqi government. Even so, the effort has been hampered by disputes over the possible role of forces other than the Iraqi Army, including units of the Kurdish pesh merga in the north and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The start of the operation has been pushed back multiple times as the United States and other members of the international coalition have urgently worked to train more Iraqi Army soldiers to take the lead in the campaign.
An Iraqi military statement, read on state television, said the army had recaptured four villages outside Mosul. Calling it a “heroic operation,” the statement said that two car bombs had been seized and that the Iraqi flag was now flying in the villages.
But rather than signaling an imminent march on Mosul, the operations on Thursday seemed more geared toward clearing villages near Makhmour, a town about 40 miles southeast of the city. Iraqi security forces have a base in Makhmour for training and planning operations in Nineveh Province. The area is close to where an American Marine was killed last week in an Islamic State rocket attack.
Iraqi officials have at times released upbeat statements about military offensives against the Islamic State that are often not matched by successes on the ground. Several times last year, officials announced the beginning of the liberation of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, but the city was not retaken until the end of the year.
Still, American officials have consistently signaled that the Mosul offensive is a priority, and even an imminent one, often describing airstrikes in the area around the city as “shaping operations” that are a prelude to a ground offensive.
In recent months, the military campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has focused on Anbar, with American and Iraqi officials saying that a major offensive on Mosul may not come until the end of this year or early 2017.
After recapturing Ramadi, which was devastated by heavy airstrikes and urban fighting and is still not safe enough for civilians to return, Iraqi forces recently began an assault on Hit, northwest of Ramadi in the Euphrates River valley.