Iraqi government forces on Monday recaptured a vast open area in the west of the city of Mosul and dislodged Islamic State (IS) militants from five villages in the area, the Iraqi military said.

The army’s 15th Infantry Division advanced in the rugged area in the north of the IS-held town of Mahlabiyah, some 35 km west of Mosul, and recaptured the villages of al-Buweir, al-Zanazil, al-Salam and al-Mansour, along with the nearby abandoned Mansour industry compound and water facility, Abdul-Amir Yarallah from the Joint Operations Command, said in a brief statement.

The army’s liberation of the villages is part of an operation launched on Saturday west of Mosul. The troops are expected to advance to recapture the predominantly Turkoman town of Mahlabiyah before heading to the IS-held town of Tal Afar, about 70 km west of Mosul.

Earlier, the paramilitary units of Hashd Shaabi advanced to the area, but avoided entering the two towns of Tal Afar and Mahlabiyah, which are both inhabited by majority of Turkoman people, as well as other minorities of Kurds and Arabs.

The advance of the predominantly Shiite paramilitary units in the ethnically mixed region, where Sunni Muslims form a majority, could spark sectarian tension with Sunni Arabs and neighboring Sunni state of Turkey.

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The operation came as Iraqi security forces, backed by the anti-IS international coalition, were simultaneously conducting a major offensive to dislodge IS militants from their major stronghold in western Mosul.

Mosul, 400 km north of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to control parts of Iraq’s northern and western regions.

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