Syrian Democratic Forces stand guard as Iraqi refugees who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, due to clashes during the ongoing assault by the Iraqi government forces to retake the city, wait to enter Syria in the desert area of Rajam al-Saliba on the Iraq-Syria border south of al-Hol in Syria's Hassakeh province on October 22, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
Iraqi forces shelled Islamic State positions outside Mosul on Monday as fighting to retake the extremist-held city entered its second week. A rights group, meanwhile, urged a probe into a suspected airstrike last week that mistakenly hit a mosque, killing over a dozen civilians.
The purported airstrike in northern Iraq struck the women's section of a Shiite mosque on Friday in the town of Daquq amid a large Islamic State assault on the nearby city of Kirkuk. That assault was meant to distract the Iraqi forces and their allies from the massive operation around Mosul.
Human Rights Watch said Daquq's residents believe the attack was an airstrike because of the extent of the destruction and because planes could be heard flying overhead. The New York-based watchdog said at least 13 people were reported killed.
The U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi military, which are waging the offensive to drive IS from the northern city of Mosul, are the only parties known to be flying military aircraft over Iraq.
Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the coalition had "definitively determined" that it did not conduct the airstrike that killed civilians in Daquq, and had shared its findings with the Iraqi government, which is carrying out its own investigation.
"The Coalition uses precision munitions and an exhaustive process to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties and collateral damage because the preservation of civilian life is paramount importance to us," Dorrian said.
Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, confirmed the Iraqi government was investigating the attack. He declined to say whether Iraqi or coalition planes were flying in the area at the time of the explosion.
The strike in Daquq, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Kirkuk, took place as dozens of IS militants attacked several government and police compounds in the city of Kirkuk, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul.
Daquq Mayor Amir Khodakram said on Saturday that the alleged airstrike killed 17 people, mainly women and children, and wounded another 50. He said it wasn't clear who carried out the airstrike.
Over the past week, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been battling IS in a belt of mostly uninhabited towns and villages to the north, east and south of Mosul, pushing to within 9 kilometers (5 ½ miles) of the city.
On Monday, Iraqi special forces began shelling IS positions before dawn near the town of Bartella, said Maj. Gen. Haider al-Obeidi. Bartella, a historically Christian town 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the east of Mosul, was retaken by Iraqi special forces last week.
Shortly afterward, a convoy of special forces advanced toward the village of Tob Zawa, encountering roadside bombs and trading heavy fire with the militants. Loudspeakers on the Humvees blared Iraqi patriotic music as they pushed toward the village.
The campaign to retake Mosul comes after months of planning and involves more than 25,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters and state-sanctioned Shiite militias. It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive IS out of Iraq's second largest city, which is still home to more than a million people.
The militants captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, when they swept across much of northern and western Iraq. IS has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, and Mosul is its last major urban bastion in Iraq.