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Thousands of Iraqis fleeing Mosul arrive in Syria

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The Islamic State group captured Mosul and the surrounding area during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in 2014, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.

EAST OF MOSUL, Iraq The offensive to seize back Mosul from Islamic State is going faster than planned, Iraq's prime minister said on Thursday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages around the city.

The US-led offensive against the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, begun this week, is part of the protracted and unfolding US war crimes that have killed, maimed and displaced millions across the Middle East. "We will have to fight them in the mind as well, to defeat their ideology".

"Our intelligence tells us the district is full of IEDs", al-Saadi said, referring to the homemade explosives ISIS has planted in huge numbers during past campaigns. "So there are, I am afraid, some very hard days ahead for the population", said Ashraf.

And in Mosul, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped with dwindling supplies on Wednesday, many sheltering in basements.

France's foreign minister is warning that up to a million people might try to flee the fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and says authorities must check each one to make sure Islamic State extremists aren't escaping among the civilians.

Members of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces pose for a photo as they advance towards the city of Mosul on Thursday.

"On the third day of operations, reports indicate that military activities remain concentrated in less populated areas, with no large-scale civilian displacement recorded at this stage", United Nations aid chief Stephen O'Brien said.

The campaign to liberate Iraq's second-largest city - and ISIS' last major Iraqi stronghold - made it to the US Presidential debate stage Wednesday night as Republican candidate Donald Trump suggested that the major, months-long offensive on the city was launched to help his rival win the US presidency.

Units from Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service, which has done the heavy lifting in most recent operations against IS, were poised to flush jihadists out of the town, officers said.

More than 100 US troops are embedded with Iraqi and Peshmerga forces behind the front lines.

"There are some pockets (of resistance), some clashes, they send auto bombs - but it will not help them", he said.

The mass exodus it sparked displaced a large proportion of Iraq's already dwindling Christian minority, sending most into the neighbouring Kurdish region.

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Peshmerga forces stationed on mountains northeast of Mosul descended from their positions and charged toward the front line.

"I think it's extraordinarily important to apply pressure in many areas, Iraq and Syria", he added.

Mosul is a Sunni majority town, and many fear the involvement of state-sanctioned Shiite militias in the operation could stoke sectarian tensions.

The general confirmed that ISIS is using IEDs attached to drones - "really, a lot of commercial, off-the-shelf kind of things we've seen" - though they're "clearly not the capacity or capability" that the coalition has.

The long-awaited operation to retake Mosul began Monday and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

"Mosul will be a hard fight. There will be advances and there will be setbacks", Obama said on Tuesday.

After clearing towns and villages on the outskirts of Mosul with air support from the US-led coalition, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege the city before entering it.

Iraqi forces may allow fleeing IS fighters an exit to the west in a bid to minimise human and material losses.

"The other thing that we've seen that's been a little bit different is the way they're using their vehicle-borne IEDs".

"Every time they take a piece of terrain away from ISIL, that's a drumbeat", Volesky said.

The Turkish official said he believes the refugees would mostly be "taken under control" within Iraq, but added that Turkey is prepared for a refugee influx.

The charity Save the Children claims that 5,000 people from the conflict area have fled to a refugee camp over the border in Syria in the last 10 days, with another 1,000 waiting at the border.

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