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Iraqi Coalition Pushes for Full Control of Jihadist Stronghold West of Mosul

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Shi'ite fighters gather during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

Shi'ite fighters gather during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

Iraqi coalition commanders said Saturday that Shi'ite militia allied with the government were in full control of Islamic State military installations at Tal Afar, as the coalition pressed to gain full control of the city west of Mosul from IS fighters.

A statement published by the umbrella organization known as the Popular Mobilization Units — a grouping of 40 Shi'ite militia — said its forces had also cut the main east-west road linking IS-occupied Mosul with the Syrian city of Raqqa, which jihadists claim as the capital of their so-called caliphate.

Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket toward Islamic State militants during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket toward Islamic State militants during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

The Iraqi advance on Tal Afar, once home to 200,000 people, came as coalition forces sought to encircle Mosul and eventually regain control of the embattled city, which IS seized in 2014.

Elsewhere, heavy fighting was reported on Mosul's eastern perimeter early Saturday as coalition forces backed by U.S.-led air power sought to penetrate deeper into the heavily fortified city.

Kurdish news reports from the scene quoted coalition commanders as saying two more neighborhoods had been seized after close-quarters combat Friday that saw IS forces rake coalition fighters with heavy sniper and mortar fire.

Separately, to the northeast of Mosul on Saturday, Kurdish peshmerga fighters joined locals in the freshly liberated town of Bashiqa, as Christians rang church bells and sang hymns while others climbed to the roof of a church to replace a cross destroyed by jihadists in 2014.

"The first thing they did was break the cross," said the Reverend Afram al-Khoury, in comments quoted by the Associated Press.

Iraqi Christians take part in a procession to erect a new cross over the Mar Korkeis church, after the original cross was destroyed by Islamic State militants, in the town of Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 19, 2016.

Iraqi Christians take part in a procession to erect a new cross over the Mar Korkeis church, after the original cross was destroyed by Islamic State militants, in the town of Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 19, 2016.

"We want to replace it and tell Daesh that the cross is still here and we are not leaving at all," al-Khoury said, using the Arabic name for IS.

The coalition offensive to recapture Mosul, which was launched October 17, is the largest military operation in Iraq since U.S. forces departed the country in 2011.

The fighting has driven thousands of civilians from the once-vibrant city, with U.N. monitors saying 60,000 have fled Mosul in the past two weeks. New U.N. analysis identifies nearly half of those refugees as children, with women and female-headed households accounting for most of the rest.

Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2016.

U.N. officials have warned that as many as 1 million civilians in and near Mosul will most likely face great danger as the offensive unfolds in the coming weeks and months.

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