Peshmerga forces 5 miles from Iraq's Mosul in key battle against ISIS

Near Mosul, Iraq (CNN)Kurdish Peshmerga forces are within five miles (eight kilometers) of Mosul, commanders said Sunday, after days of fighting and sweeping territorial gains in the operation to free the key Iraqi city from ISIS control.

A coalition of 100,000 troops have been closing in on Mosul since Monday, liberating surrounding communities village by village and making quicker-than-expected gains.
The coalition vastly outnumbers its opponent. No more than 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, a US military official said, although the terror group's supporters put the number at 7,000.
Officials and analysts say that entering Mosul is likely to kick off intense street fighting as coalition forces try to retake what has become the cultural capital of ISIS' envisaged caliphate, or Islamic state.

    Latest developments

    • Turkey says it provided troops, weaponry to assist the Peshmerga in Bashiqa.
    • ISIS executed about 40 people celebrating the "liberation" of their villages by Iraqi forces, a Mosul official said.
    • Dozens of ISIS militants were killed in the Peshmerga push to Mosul's outskirts
    • Two Christian towns -- Hamdaniya and Bartella -- were freed over the weekend, Iraqi military officials say
    • Hundreds of people near al-Qayyara were affected by a fire at a disused sulphur factory, sources said
    • ISIS launched a dawn attack south of Kirkuk city Sunday after an attack there Friday
    • US Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with the Kurdistan Regional Government's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Irbil
    Iraqi forces hold position on the frontline near Tall al-Tibah on Friday

    'Freed' and then forgotten

    Two Peshmerga factions linked up after surrounding the empty town of Bashiqa, about eight miles east of Mosul, with the support of coalition air power, the Peshmerga's general command said in a statement Sunday.
    They were able to cordon off eight villages in an area measuring approximately 38 square miles (100 square kilometers) and secure a significant stretch of the Bashiqa-Mosul highway to limit ISIS' freedom of movement, commanders said. Hourslong clashes left dozens of ISIS militants dead, they said.
    Turkish troops supported the Peshmerga in the battle, and Turkey has provided them with artillery, tanks and Firtina howitzer vehicles, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, according to state-run news agency Anadolu.
    With this weekend's gains have come pockets of horrific losses. ISIS executed about 40 people who were celebrating the apparent liberation of their villages by Iraqi forces, a Mosul City Council official said Sunday, citing local sources.
    The official said that although Iraqi troops passed through the village where the executions took place -- near Nimrud, south of Mosul -- they did not leave units behind to ensure that ISIS militants stayed out.
    These follow executions on Thursday and Friday, when ISIS militants rounded up and shot dead 284 men and boys, an Iraqi intelligence source told CNN. The reported massacres were a savage show of force as the coalition tightened its noose around Mosul.
    Iraqi Special Forces soldiers hold a cross found in the town of Bartella on Saturday

    Church bells ring

    Lt. Gen. Riyad Jalal, commander of the Iraqi ground forces, told state-run al-Iraqiya TV Sunday that the town of Hamdaniya, also known as Qaraqosh, had been freed and that authorities were now in the process of bringing back local officials to reopen main public buildings and plan the repair of infrastructure.
    Why Mosul matters

    Since Mosul's capture by ISIS fighters in June 2014, Mosul has been a vital stronghold for ISIS.

    The largest city under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, it was the city from which the group first declared the establishment of its so-called caliphate.

    Since then, ISIS has gradually lost its other Iraqi cities -- Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja -- to government forces.

    About 1 million people are estimated to remain in Mosul, once a cosmopolitan trade hub of 2 million residents.

    Iraqi forces and a Christian paramilitary group entered the town earlier in the week and faced fierce resistance from ISIS fighters for several days. Forces on Thursday had pushed the militants into the town center, where they were pounded by coalition air strikes supporting the assault.
    Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Maliki, commander of the Iraqi 9th armored division, said at least 50 ISIS militants were killed and much of their equipment destroyed in the assault. His forces now are cleansing the city from IEDs and sweeping buildings in case any ISIS militants might be hiding, he said.
    Most Iraqi Christians from Hamdaniya fled their hometown of Irbil, when ISIS sezied control in 2014. They have celebrated Iraqi forces' attempts to reclaim their hometown.
    A few kilometers to the south, church bells rang out in town Saturday for the first time since ISIS seized it more than two years ago, local networks reported. Iraq officials claimed that some 200 ISIS fighters were killed in the assault.

    Defense secretary commends the Peshmerga

    The coalition pushing through Nineveh Province marks an extraordinary union of factions that have long stood on opposing sides in Iraq's history, with Kurdish forces, Christians and Shia Muslims fighting alongside the majority Sunni Arabs.
    Nineveh itself is the center of Iraq's diversity and is home to Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shias alike.
    US Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Irbil on Sunday to meet with Kurdistan Regional Government's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.
    "I'm here to commend you and your forces. I'm encouraged by what I see," he said.
    A unit of what appeared to be US special forces advisers entered ISIS territory with the very first armored convoy of Peshmerga last Monday, a CNN team observed, placing American forces at the front of the fight to retake Mosul.