Iraqi forces have captured two villages on the outskirts of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud as they move ahead to drive Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters from Iraq's second city Mosul.
The 9th division of the Iraqi army on Sunday advanced on Nimrud and Numaniyah villages on the edge of the main city, military officials told Al Jazeera. Earlier reports said the entire 3,000-year-old city - about 30km south of Mosul - had been captured by the army.
Nimrud - once the capital of an empire stretching across the ancient Middle East - is one of several historic sites looted and ransacked by ISIL fighters, who deem the country's pre-Islamic religious heritage as idolatrous.
ISIL still controls other Assyrian landmarks, including the ruins of Nineveh and Khorsabad, as well as the 2,000-year-old desert city of Hatra.
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Four weeks into the campaign to crush ISIL in Mosul, the city is almost surrounded but the armed group's defences have so far been breached only to the east, where they have battled elite troops for control of about a dozen districts.
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The fight for Mosul, the biggest city held by the armed group in Iraq, is the largest military operation in a decade of turmoil unleashed by the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's government, which has assembled a 100,000-strong coalition of troops, security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and mainly Shia militias - backed by US air power - said the battle will mark the end of ISIL in Iraq.
But it acknowledged that the fight will be a long one.
Meanwhile on the frontline, an army special forces officer said his men aimed to target Hadba, the first neighbourhood ahead of them within city limits. The district was visible from his position in the village of Bawiza, Reuters news agency reported.
Brigadier Ali Abdulla said ISIL fighters had been pushed out of Bawiza and another village, Saada, although forward progress had been slowed by the presence of civilians.
"Our approach will be very slow and cautious so that we can reach the families and free them from Daesh's grip," Abdulla said, using the Arabic name for ISIL.
IN PICTURES: A deserted sanctuary near Mosul's frontlines
The urban warfare tactics were similar to those deployed to lethal effect in the east of Mosul against elite Counter Terrorism Service forces and an armoured division.
In some districts, control has changed hands three or four times as ISIL fighters - using tunnels and exploiting the presence of civilians as cover - have launched nighttime attacks and reversed military gains of the previous day.
More than 54,000 people have been forced to flee their homes so far in the Mosul campaign.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said on Sunday that tens of thousands of people "lack access to water, food, electricity and basic health services" in areas recaptured by the army in Mosul and surrounding towns and villages.
Ultimately, 700,000 people were likely to need shelter, food, water or medical support, it said.
Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies