ISIS fighter are now at risk of being encircled as Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces attacked an ISIS-held town northeast of Mosul on Monday, trying to clear a pocket of militants outside the city while Iraqi troops wage a fierce urban war with the jihadists in its eastern neighborhoods.
With the Battle for Mosul in its fourth week, fighters across the border have launched an offensive in the Syrian half of the jihadist group's self-declared caliphate, targeting its base in the city of Raqqa, Reuters reports.
The assault on Raqqa, held by Islamic State for nearly three years, will be spearheaded by armed groups backed by the United States and supported by US-led air strikes. Unlike in Iraq where the army is leading the assault, however, it is not being coordinated with President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian army.
In Bashiqa, some 15 km (10 miles) from Mosul, the first waves of a 2,000-strong peshmerga force entered the town on foot and in armored vehicles or Humvees.
Artillery earlier pounded the town, which lies on the Nineveh plains at the foot of a mountain.
"Our aim is to take control and clear out all the Daesh (Islamic State) militants," Lieutenant-Colonel Safeen Rasoul told Reuters. "Our estimates are there are about 100 still left and 10 suicide cars."
Islamic State fighters have sought to slow the offensive on their Mosul stronghold with waves of suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi commanders say there have been 100 on the eastern front and 140 in the south.
A top Kurdish official told Reuters on Sunday the jihadists had also deployed drones strapped with explosives, long-range artillery shells filled with chlorine gas and mustard gas and trained snipers, according to Reuters.
Kurdish forces launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery into the town on Sunday in advance of the offensive.
Al Jazeera's Jamal El Shayyal, reporting from Erbil, said "as far as the Kurdish fighters are concerned, Bashiqa is the last remaining major area ISIS controls in the KRG, which is the semi-autononums Kurdish region of Iraq".
"[Kurdish forces] are entering [Bashiqa] not only on the ground but from the skies as well. Bashiqa is also important to retake because it has a multicultural, multi-ethnic population, which includes Christians, Yazidis, Sunni Arabs, and many others," he said.
"This is not only a fight against ISIS to retake these towns for the Iraqi government. There's a sectarian side to this conflict where maybe getting these towns back will give some benefit to beating ISIS, as it will build a cross-section of society banded together."