Baghdad (AFP) - Iraqi paramilitary forces announced Wednesday that they had entered the Tal Afar airport west of Mosul and were fighting to clear pockets of Islamic State group jihadists inside it.
The airport is located some six kilometres (four miles) south of the town of Tal Afar, the ultimate target of an operation billed as an attempt to cut off jihadists in Mosul from territory they control farther west.
Fighting towards Tal Afar has so far been the main task for the Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella organisation for pro-government paramilitaries that is dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, in the massive operation aimed at recapturing Mosul that was launched on October 17.
"An operation to pursue pockets of (IS) hiding inside the airport is happening now," Hashed al-Shaabi spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said in a statement.
The airport will be "a launch point for Hashed al-Shaabi forces to liberate the centre of the Tal Afar district, and cut the last (IS) supply lines between Mosul and Tal Afar," Assadi said.
Hashed forces have been pushing their way toward Tal Afar from starting points south of Mosul for more than two weeks, retaking a series of villages from IS along the way.
There has been opposition both inside and outside Iraq to the idea of Shiite militia forces, which have been repeatedly accused of rights violations against Sunnis, being involved in the battle for predominantly Sunni Arab Mosul.
The Hashed push for Tal Afar, which had a Shiite majority prior to being seized by IS in 2014, gives these forces a role in the battle but so far only federal forces have entered the city.
IS seized Mosul along with swathes of other territory in June 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained much of the areas they lost two years before, and the city is now the country's last major population centre still in jihadist hands.
The Hashed al-Shaabi, which was established in June 2014 but includes militias that were founded years earlier, played a major role in halting the initial IS offensive and later in pushing the jihadists back, and is widely admired among Iraq's Shiite majority.