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Mar 30, 11:09 AM EDT

UN chief in Iraq backs fight against Islamic State group


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- The U.N. chief offered support for Iraq's fight against the Islamic State group during a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, even as the country faces a growing humanitarian crisis following the months-long battle for Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

At a joint press conference with Antonio Guterres, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraqi forces were doing their "utmost" to protect civilians in the fight against IS and accused the extremists of intentionally putting civilians in harm's way while also "intensifying their propaganda machine to spread rumors."

Guterres expressed support for Iraq's fight, condemned IS crimes against civilians and pledged continued aid for the some 3 million Iraqis displaced by the fighting.

Hours earlier, as the secretary-general arrived in the Iraqi capital, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bombing in Baghdad the previous night that killed 15 people and wounded 45.

The fight to take back Mosul began in October, backed by the U.S.-led international coalition. After routing IS from the eastern part of the city, Iraqi forces in February launched a push to drive the militants from the western half. The Tigris River separates Mosul into its eastern and western sector.

Shortly after landing at Baghdad International Airport, Guterres said on Twitter that his visit is to "focus on the dire humanitarian situation on the ground." Amid reports of dozens of civilians killed by airstrikes in Mosul, he added that "protection of civilians must be the absolute priority."

Guterres met with Iraq's president and parliament speaker as well as the prime minister. The U.N. chief also plans to meet leaders in Iraq's northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Since the start of the Mosul military operation, more than 350,000 people have fled the fighting, according to U.N. figures.

On Thursday, Iraq's militarized federal police inched deeper into Mosul's old city - a dense urban core in the city's western half - where they met with stiff resistance from IS militants.

First Lt. Walid Khalid of the 3rd brigade Federal Police said his troops advanced about 100 meters (yards) in the last two days.

"The distance between IS and us is 50 meters, yesterday, we killed four IS fighters and right now their bodies are in the street." Khalid told The Associated Press. "The situation is very good and the Iraqi air force is doing well."

He said the troops were about 100 meters from a symbolic mosque where the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the extremists' self-styled caliphate in the summer of 2014.

Also Thursday, the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups, reported the IS claim of responsibility for the bombing late Wednesday in Baghdad.

In the claim, IS warns Iraqi Shiites that the "flame of the battle" in Mosul will come to them in the cities of Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf.

In the attack, a suicide truck bomb targeted a police checkpoint on the Iraqi capital's main southern entrance. Three policemen were among the 15 dead while the rest were civilians, police and health officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.

The militants have suffered a string of defeats over the past two years in the lead-up to the Mosul operation, but have continued to regularly launch attacks in and around Baghdad. A series of large-scale bombings claimed by IS has also struck Baghdad since the operation to retake Mosul began.

Iraqi and coalition officials have repeatedly warned that after Mosul, IS will likely return to its insurgent roots as it loses more territory in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

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Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch in Mosul contributed to this report.

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